Iseul was well aware that they didn’t particularly like her in the grove. It wasn’t a fact they hid very well, but then again, fae had never been known for their ability to keep secrets. It was anyone’s guess as to how they even managed to stay out of sight from the majority of humanity.
She didn’t blame them, though. Iseul was no fairy, no small creature with delicate wings and wicked looking nails and teeth, dark skin glittering and glowing in the dim light as their bodies hummed with magic. That wasn’t her. She was big – standing a good six feet at least, all pale skin, muscle, and scar tissue. And, when the moon arose fully each month, she was more dangerous than any fairy could ever hope to be.
The downsides of a being a werewolf, sometimes, felt much heavier than the upsides.
She had yet to be chased out, which was always a plus. The forest and all of its overgrown trees, sprawling roots and ivy, and patches of mushrooms and wild flowers were starting to grow on Iseul. In some ways, it almost felt like a new home; one to replace the home she had lost when she left the pack. That was a home she knew couldn’t return to. Even if she could, she felt no reason to return to the life she had left behind.
As she crossed a lonely looking brook, the water trickled lightly along the rocks, Iseul could hear someone approaching. They were still a distance off but she was on alert. Their feet crunched fallen leaves, only heard due to her sensitive ears. Likely not a fae, she decided, as they preferred flight, and heavy footfalls weren’t easy to mix up with the buzzing of wings.
She turned north, waiting for her visitor to reach their destination. Most fairies didn’t go out of their way to talk to her. She felt nervous. What could they possibly want? Nothing good, she figured, knowing her luck in life.
As they neared, Iseul surprised to see that there had been a second being - a fae this time, a ghost compared to the familiar young witch hunched over beside her.
"Iseul!" the witch panted, clearly tired from running the entire way there. "It's... really... really… urgent!"
Iseul grew impatient as the witch struggled to form words through her exhaustion. "Gracie, what is it?" she asked, placing a gentle hand on her. Graciela, or Gracie as they called her, stood a good five foot three with hair about the same length. Iseul had to bend down slightly to be at eye level.
The fae, Thema, was stern as she regarded Iseul. Her presence there worried Iseul to no end. Thema was a woman who demanded one’s attention, with full lips and strong, sharp cheekbones. Her wings were the colour of gold and shimmered in the faint light that made its way through the canopy above them. She carried an air of power around her. It was no surprise her name meant ‘Queen’.
As intimidating as she was, that wasn’t what was bothering Iseul. "Where's Kojo?" Iseul asked, suddenly feeling dread pool in her stomach.
"That's what I'm here about!" Gracie said, her voice returning to her. Busy hands got to work on straightening her rumbled dress out. "His mom noticed him missing, and I did a little spell. He's in the city."
"And?” Iseul asked. “He sneaks out there a lot, doesn't he?" She crossed her arms defensively, like a wall to protect her. Thema was here for a reason. Iseul wasn’t sure if she wanted to know it, but she felt like she did.
Thema nodded, one chocolate coloured hand running nervously along her many braids. "Unfortunately, yes," she said, sighing in contempt. Her golden freckles sparkled like glitter as she spoke. Iseul had heard the same lecture from her to her son several times: ‘fairies were much safer in the grove, yadda, yadda’. No matter how many times Thema had tried to tell Kojo that, he never seemed to listen. "But my son may be in real danger this time. We believe a human may have gotten a hold of him. The last time that happened… oh, he hasn’t been the same since."
Iseul's mind raced to a number of possibilities. While humans didn't always spell bad things for any supernatural creature, there was no telling what kind of situation Kojo had gotten himself into. His impulsiveness was his fatal flaw. Her heart thrummed with anxiety. "Let me guess," she began, "you want me to track him down?"
Gracie nodded, her curly hair going everywhere. Iseul was surprised her hat even stayed on. "Yeah. You're his closest friend, after all, and you have a good nose. Plus, on the off chance a hunter took him, you have the element of surprise. Non-magical creatures are much harder to track compared to us,” she explain, hands digging into her clothes. She bit at her lip. Her eyes flicked down, before meeting Iseul’s gaze once more. “You… do think you can find him, right?”
If Iseul had been nervous before, she felt even worse at the unsure tone of Gracie’s voice. She swallowed thickly, thinking. Iseul cracked her knuckles nervously. It was an old habit of hers that she had picked up from her father.
Thema seemed to take notice of her change in demeanor, and slowly put a hand on Gracie’s shoulder. “I am sure she can,” she told the witch, voice full of a confidence Iseul had never known. Even then, the words meant a lot to Iseul, as Thema had never been a fan of hers, especially when they first met. Iseul couldn’t blame her; a fear of werewolves was not unwarranted.
Iseul inhaled deeply. "Alright,” she began, doing her best to keep her voice even. “I'm… I’m sure I'll be able to find him. No worries, alright?”
The two women nodded, both of them looking different shades of relieved. “Got it!” Gracie chirped as she turned on her heel. “Have a safe journey. Good luck.” With those final words, Graciela was off running once more.
Thema turned to Iseul, her face cold as stone. "Iseul Park," she said, speaking as if each of her words were carefully picked out, "when you find Kojo, please inform him of the amount of trouble he is in." Iseul nodded, feeling a shiver at the coldness of her voice. Thema showed no mercy with her punishments. She only ran short of physically harming or emotionally scarring people. She was a good woman, really, but Iseul couldn’t say she wished Thema was her own mother.
"...I will," she replied, trying to ignore the voices in her head telling her all the ways she could fail. “I will.”
Making it to Annapolis was a breeze. It had taken Iseul a while to memorise the path, but it was the kind of thing she never really forgot, like how to tie her boots or how to ride a bike. It stuck with her almost like magic. Perhaps it really was magic. One never knew with fairies.
The dirt path from the forest let up to the outskirt of the city, where few outlets and some homes were located. It was closer to the business side of Annapolis, where construction was more common than people. Iseul had always wondered if the fae ever worried about the city expanding into their territory, but yet it never seemed edge any closer to their borders.
The air in the city was noticeably staler. It was something Iseul had never noticed until she found herself used to the fresh, minty air in the grove, which always carried a small touch of electricity from the amount of pure magic that hung around. Annapolis, instead, gave her concrete and pollution, with the occasional scent from the assortment of foods being cooked.
Iseul glanced around the area. When she confirmed she was alone, she stepped back, before breaking into a run. She hopped a fence, but her feet never hit the ground. Rather, as her hand left the metal, she morphed into her wolf form, landing skillfully on her paws. The impact sent a shock through her legs, but it barely hurt.
This was nothing new to her. As a werewolf, she had three forms: her human form, a wolf form, and the true werewolf form. The first one was self-explanatory. The second, her wolf form, allowed her to turn into a wolf – complete with black fur to match her hair colour, and each and every one of her scars. Past her size and intelligence, she was nearly indistinguishable from a normal wolf. Iseul’s wolf self was about as long as she was tall as a human and she was not a small girl.
Her werewolf form was in another ballpark entirely, and only achievable on full moons. It wasn't something she liked to talk about.
Iseul made her way through Annapolis, keeping to the shadows. Tracking the familiar scent of Kojo wasn't as difficult as she had assumed it would be, but she still struggled with shaking off the feeling that she was going to fail. She barely had confidence in herself. Even Gracie hadn’t seemed sure. So, why did Thema believe in her?
The good thing about being a wolf, she decided, was that you didn't have to think about that as much. Self-doubt was worlds away when someone was scratching you behind the ear.
As she neared the more populated areas of the city, Iseul forced herself to turn back to a human. She could still track her friend, sure, but it would be harder to latch onto the scent. Being inconspicuous always meant one couldn’t do things the fun way. Or, least, that was what Kojo liked to say. Iseul couldn’t say he wrong.
As the sun made its way across the sky, she found herself moving farther and farther away from the hub of the city, and thus farther from her home. It was worrying. Kojo was adventurous, yes, but he rarely went this far away - at least, as far as Iseul knew, and he tended to be honest with her.
By then, the buildings were more sparse, graffiti covering their lonely walls. Older structures were more common now, their age showing in their sorry state. Annapolis had existed since the 1800s, so the only surprise was that many of the old buildings were still being used.
It wasn’t long before Iseul reached her destination. She found herself in front of a condemned Victorian era house. They weren't uncommon in the city; with the number of foreclosures that had been picking up in the last few years. She doubted the house was cheap when it had been in good condition.
She could smell Kojo, though, and that’s what mattered. He was close. Along with his familiar scent (pine and orange) came the scent of magic that hung around. It reminded her of ozone, of the smell right before a lightning storm. It was electric to her senses, sharp like needles, and unmistakable. It was stronger in the grove, but there the scents of the plants helped take away some of the sharpness. Iseul wasn't even sure if humans could smell magic. Maybe even fairies couldn't; her nose was beyond either of theirs.
Breaking in was easy. Half rotted wood didn't stand much of a chance to her strength. Though, she was sure she was going to be picking splinters out of her skin for months.
Iseul was surprised she didn’t sneeze the moment she walked in. The air was staler than the city, full of dust and other particles. She covered her mouth, making her way through the house, careful to not make a sound. She had no idea what she was going to be up against. She could smell another presence, all iron and sweet-grass. Iron wasn't a good sign – fairies had a natural weakness to it. There was a reason they stayed away from human civilization, after all. Humans loved iron. Iseul was just glad that silver was considered a precious metal, and thus, not commonly used.
Iseul only gave a passing glance to the different rooms. The afternoon sun shone in through cracks in the wood on the windows, illuminating it well enough for her to see if there was someone waiting for her in the shadows. There was nothing but scattered, forgotten furniture. Nothing was a neutral sign. Sure, no enemy to deal with was good, but it also meant no Kojo.
Iseul trekked up a rickety set of stairs, which creaked under her weight. Pine and orange attacked her nose right away. She found Kojo on the second floor, in a bedroom. He seemed to be asleep, his hands bound, but... she crouched closer, unsure. His warm brown eyes opened a little. Kojo gave a miniscule shake of the head. Then he jerked it towards the form of another man, silhouetted against an untouched window.
Iseul ducked, rolling onto the ground until she was under the bed. She could only hope that she hadn’t made too much sound. From her position she couldn't see much of the man by the glass. From what she could tell, he was average, strawberry-blond, and seemed to favour the colours green and black judging by his clothes. Still, she wasn’t without an idea as to who he was. The amount of weapons he carried told her everything: he was a hunter. But what did a hunter want with a fairy? Sure, they could be dangerous if provoked, but they were rarely agitated by humans. Hunters were supposed to target dangerous supernatural creatures, weren’t they? She couldn’t even begin to imagine Kojo as being dangerous.
“So, fairy,” the man began, tapping his foot idly. “You've been awfully quiet. And here I thought you'd miss me from our last meeting... still haven't learned to keep your nose out of the big city, eh?”
“Shut up, Thad,” Kojo hissed back. Thad. She knew that name. This wasn’t good.
Iseul could hear Kojo trying to fight against his bonds, before crying out in pain. Iron. He had to have come in contact with iron to make that kind of sound. Iseul felt her chest tighten. It took a lot to stop herself from reacting impulsively. Seeing, or hearing, her friends in pain was not something she enjoyed. She was a protector at heart, even if she often felt like she was no good at it.
“What do you even want?” rasped Kojo, a vicious bite to his voice, one she had never heard before.
Thad moved so that his face in Iseul's line of sight. “Same as last time we met. I want your magic,” Thad stated plainly, cracking his knuckles. “And we all know we can do this the hard way or the easy way.” Iseul could tell by the contempt in his tone that no matter what happened, Kojo was not coming out of this okay. She was no fan of hunters, but Thad was particularly infamous for ignoring any of the rules the Hunter’s guild had put into place. He was a rogue – savage in tactic and ruthless in nature. Not the kind of man anyone would wish to cross paths with.
She could see Kojo swinging his legs, the only part of him visible to her as he adjusted his position on the worn out bed. He mumbled something that even Iseul had to strain her ears to hear. Thad moved in closer. “What was that?” he asked, his tone the vocal equivalent of a sneer.
Thad let out a yelp. Iseul winced at the sudden sound. One of Kojo's legs moved like lightning, and she heard the shattering of glass. “You-!” There was another loud sound, before Thad ran passed the bed, out into the hall, and down the stairs with enough force enough to break a step. Iseul waited a moment once he was out of sight, before she even dared to slip out.
Kojo was perched up on the bed, nursing a slowly forming black eye. “How'd you find me?” he whispered. Other than the injury to his eye, he seemed fine. That was definitely a relief.
“You reek,” she quipped, struggling with his iron handcuffs. They broke under the stress, no match for her strength – even if it had been difficult to break. She was definitely considering learning how pick locks if this was going to become a habit for Kojo. Knowing him, it was entirely possible. “What'd you do to Thad?”
“I bit him. And then when he got his hand away I kicked this trinket out of his hand, this one that he needs to work with magic,” he replied, watching her. His usual curious glint was in his eyes, a glint that never seemed to leave.
Underneath the iron was a simple rope, binding his wrists together. Where there iron had met brown skin, there were welts and burn from the contact. Iseul winced, but Kojo seemed to pay them no heed. She got to work on untying him, her hands fumbling as she rushed to do it before Thad came back. She had spent far too much time on the iron.
“I can untie myself,” Kojo said indignantly.
Iseul let go, hands spread out defensively. She gave him an unimpressed look. “Okay. Fine. Do it.”
In the distance, they could hear swearing. The bounding of boots on rotten wood was coming closer to them. Kojo looked panicked. “On second thought,” he said suddenly, “keep untying me, please.”
Iseul hummed, a small smile playing on her lips. “Thought so,” she said, successfully untying him. The sound of footsteps was closer. The broken stairs may have been a saving grace. “Can you fly?” she asked, gripping his shoulder a bit too tightly.
Kojo gave a discomforted look. “No. My wings are still damaged from my first meeting with Thad, from before I met you.” She knew little of that time, only what she could pick up from conversations. Iseul never pressed.
Iseul sighed in defeat. Taking the main door would mean they'd have to come face to face with Thad. She knew without a doubt that he was carrying silver as well as iron on his body. Hunters seemed to have this idea that being crazily prepared was the only type of prepared. Dealing with him again would be unpleasant at best, and a death sentence for them both at worst.
She looked around, trying to find anything to aid them. She really had been the worst choice for this, hadn't she? Unless... Her eyes caught the glimmer of broken glass on the floor. She glanced up, up at the windows that Thad's trinket had been kicked out of. It was a large window, taking up most of the northern wall. Likely, they were in what had once been the master bedroom. Part of it was boarded up, but a majority of the planes boasted dirtied glass, where weak sunlight managed to filter through. A stronger beam of sunlight streamed through the hole Kojo had made.
They were only on the second floor… A small smirk formed on Iseul's face. Maybe she could do this.
“Oh no,” Kojo said, shaking his head as his hands went up, palms facing her. “I don't like that look on your fa-!” his words formed into a shout as Iseul picked him up and ran full force towards the window.
If Iseul had learned anything that day, it was that breaking a window by running into it looked far easier in movies. It also looked far less painful. The hole made it easier to break, it seemed, but it hurt more than she had expected. The glass cut in to their skin like paper.
Iseul tried to maneuver herself in the short fall, hoping to take the brunt of the landing. Kojo didn’t need any more injuries, and to be honest, he was far more fragile than she ever had been. She felt tremors of pain go through her body as she landed harshly in the dying grass. “You okay?” she asked. Kojo gave a weak nod, his arms wrapped around her tightly, threatening to choke her to death if he got too much of a spook.
Shouting came from the window, but Iseul didn't focus on the words. All she heard was the cocking of a gun – and she knew without a doubt that it was likely loaded with silver bullets. Hunters were weapon obsessed, and Thad was the worst of them all.
She sat Kojo down, shouting “Get on my back!” Before he could give a coherent reply, she was a wolf once more. As soon as she felt his weight on her body, she took off, racing bustling city, not paying any mind to the screams of pedestrians that noticed them. She'd deal with any of the collateral or lectures from Thema after Kojo was safe.
Iseul didn't slow down until the grove came up on the horizon. Once there, Kojo slipped off her back with one of his rare moments of grace. He smiled at her, scratching her behind the ear like he knew she liked. To be honest, she had no problem people petting her, and a hands-on person like Kojo loved to do it. Being a werewolf did have it upsides.
It didn’t take long for their presence to be noted. Thema rushed over, hugging Kojo closely. She murmured things in Akan, her native language.
Graciela came over as well. It was odd to see her, as while she lived on the edge of the forest, it was rare for her to spend much time in it. Fairies were territorial, Gracie had told her. Iseul knew she was luckily that at least two of them liked her.
Thema ordered Gracie to get bandages for their wounds. “Thank you for getting my son back. He doesn't know how much trouble's hes in-”
“Mom! It wasn’t my fault, he snuck up on me!”
“But I am so happy that he's safe,” she said, running a hand through Kojo's thick mop of kinks and curls. “Though I doubt this will keep him out of Annapolis.”
Iseul shifted back to being human. “It's not a problem,” Iseul replied. She rubbed at the calluses on her hand idly. It was around then that it sunk in: she had successfully rescued her friend. Huh. It hit her in a way she couldn't describe. For a moment she felt depersonalized, like she wasn't herself at all. Maybe she wasn't so hopeless... Yeah, yeah, she wasn’t. She had managed to get Kojo without anything bad happening. In fact, other than the cuts from the glass, no one had even gotten hurt, which was a miracle for her. Thema had believed in her, and she had still done it despite her own doubts… Iseul felt hope spread through her chest, warming her, bringing a smile to her face. “Not a problem at all.”
Thema lips twitched; it was the closest thing to a smile she had ever given Iseul. “I can only hope you won’t have to go do this again in the future but… Kojo’s track record isn’t the best.” She ignored the muttering of her son. Her strong grip on his shoulders kept him from escaping her clutches. “I’m going to have so much grey in my hair from him by the time he’s an adult.”
Iseul chuckled. “You and me both,” she replied.
Thema nodded once at her. Iseul decided that Thema’s lip twitches definitely counted as smiles. Iseul would take what she could get.
Thema turned, face stern. Without hesitation, she launched into her usual lecture with Kojo. “I’ve told you time and time again, you can’t just leave like that! It’s dangerous, and you’ve proven this more than once. Things aren’t like they were when I was a child, or even when you were younger, Kojo.” Iseul zoned out after that. She had heard the lecture many times despite it not being for her. She had a feeling Kojo wasn’t any more attentive to his mother. By now, Iseul figured he could recite it all by heart.
She snapped back into reality at the sound of Kojo’s voice. “Hey! Come on,” he said, slipping away from his mother. He grabbed her hand. Iseul glanced at Thema, who just gave her a tired look. “Mom cut the lecture short for once. She told me I should go rest ‘cuz what happened was probably scary, but…” He tugged at her arms, dragging her towards his own house. Iseul didn’t budge, looking down at him with a raised eyebrow. “You promised me the other day you'd teach me how to make kimchi,” he continued, “and all those other Korean foods you said your family would make back in Seoul!”
“Alright, alright,” Iseul said, giving an airy laugh. She went along with him, as he prattled on about the foods she had promised they’d make.
In the end, she hadn't been such a bad protector after all. Kojo was fine, and he bounced back easily enough, even if she had a nagging feeling that cooking with her was a way for him to cope. Still, if she could help him like he had helped her in the past in any way, well…That was good enough for her.