Issie looked down from her balcony, decorated with blue and burgundy roses with large, violent thorns. The vines wrapped themselves around the bannister on the balcony, usually pricking anyone who foolishly leaned on it. They looked threatening enough but Issie never minded; she was grew used to the pain as she scratched at one of the old scars appearing on her arm, crossing the boundary from her wrist to her hand, only managing to end at the bottom of her middle finger.
The thorn dug into her skin, drawing blood, as she leaned on the bannister. The blood droplets trickled down her forearm and dropped onto her dress, tainting it with an inky patch. Other droplets followed this same path and created an even bigger patch on her dress. She didn’t care, this dress was one of the many dresses that sat lonely in her wardrobe. Growing numb to the feeling of the thorns digging their way into her skin, she watched as her sisters flirted with the many men that her father had hand-picked for them. She watched as her sister, Roselyn, intentionally dropped her hair-pin, and bent down in front of the man, knowingly showing off her bosom. Issie watched as the tiny smirk appeared on her sister’s face and disappeared before anyone could acknowledge that it was there. The man blushed, his ivory cheeks grew with more colour than Issie thought was possible as he tried his best to look away.
Her sisters were special in that sense. The whispers in the air called them succubi, some called them syrens, and some even called them whores, but everyone knew that their lustful power was hard to refuse. The warm undertone under their dark Taiwanese skin gave them a celestial golden glow, to the point where many thought they were angels in the form of mere mortals on earth. Fallen angels, the three sisters often joked. Issie would laugh along with them, even though she knew that she was not one of them.
She was different. Her skin, although bearing the same glow of their dark Taiwanese skin, was not as flawless as her sisters. This did not mean that they loved her any less. Yet, she (and the entire world) knew her differences. The tattooed-like scars on her arms and on her body had written out a different path for her, one that her father never approved of.
Rumours surrounded the birth of Gualin Tsai’s fourth child. Gualin was famously known for treating his female children with the same respect that [removed many – only to reduce your word count] men treated their sons. Many disagreed with his parenting techniques but nobody had the effrontery to confront him about it, as many feared the consequences that came with it.
Issie’s birth was kept a secret. Her father knew that his other children’s lives were already on the line, and since the assassination of his youngest brother, he knew that his rivals would stop at nothing to end the Tsai dynasty. He had sent the newborn and her mother to live in the rural part of the city, so that nobody would suspect their whereabouts when the quick-fire gossip about Issie’s arrival spread throughout the city. By the time Issie was nine, far from her father’s household, strange marks had begun to appear on her body. Intricate scar-like lines etched into her skin. Issie’s mother grew grey with worry, wondering what on earth had suddenly plagued her daughter.
Issie was at the tender age of twelve when it was considered safe for her to live back with her father and her other three sisters. She was welcomed back with open hands, but her father was still worried about the prominent scars that led from her ribs and wrapped itself around her back. Some whispered in the seedy restaurants that the fourth Tsai child was cursed, a curse bestowed by the legends above. However, her father (a sceptic) could not believe such madness. If anything his daughter was simply a product of the legends themselves, and that was the end of it. He wouldn’t entertain the idea that his wife brought up many times: to see an old herbalist in order to determine what was wrong.
“There is nothing wrong with her! She is a product of you and I! Are you saying that our genetics are twisted?” He would keep his voice firm, knowing that his wife would soon let the subject go.
“I’m just worried, Gualin.” His wife’s voice sounded defeated and he would often come round to her side to comfort her. She would lean into his arms as Gualin wiped her tears away.
“Spend your tears on something more fruitful.” He would whisper. ‘She will not break our hearts. Not today, not ever.”
* ~ * ~ *
Even from a young age, Issie kept to herself. She knew that the other children feared her. It was not only because of her famous heritage, but because of the way she carried herself. When she was enrolled in state school (her father thought that integrating her in school would pass off the illusion of a normal life) she was always silent. Some of her peers said she reminded them of a panther; silent but always watching for its prey. It was from then that she learned to ignore the rumours. What her prey was, she never knew. She would let them gossip about her. She’d rather it was about her than the horrible things they said about her sisters. The three whores, the other kids would say when they thought she was out of earshot.
Too bad she isn’t as hot as her other sisters.
Gossip was the only thing that made the world go round. Or, at the very least, it made her city run smoothly. The rumour mill was advanced, like the sleek chrome buildings that attracted many to her father’s kingdom in the first place, and the workers were always working to spread their newest information around the city.
Issie pushed the door open, removing the black hood from her face, once she was safely inside. She gave a small, insincere smile to the librarian, who happened to be one of her father’s associates. The same insincere smile was returned to her, and she instantly felt comfortable in the library’s familiar smell. Her local library was often mistaken for a vintage bookstore, just on how tiny it seemed. The entrance led to a bigger room, filled to the brim with rows and rows of books. From fictional adventures to real-life adventures, from fictional spies to real-life spies, Issie felt quite at home. She was a true bibliophile. Only certain books could embrace her the same way that nature did in the days of her childhood. It was one of the two places where she fully believed that she could escape to, without eyes looking and judging her scars whenever her sleeve fell down to her elbow.
Making her way through to main, larger room, she made her way to the back, where the plants hung around and kept the shelves company. She knew that her true loves would be waiting, like they always were, for her. Her father had made the entire backrow only accessible to her, so the library always stocked her favourites. Issie sat down on the dark bean-bag, and bent forward to run her fingers over the line of books sitting on the bottom shelf. The fake leaves always gave her that plastic-y feel, and she used to loathe it, but now had grown used to it. She still considered the vibe to be earthy, despite how synthetic it was.
Her finger ran over something new this time. Something was different.
Running her fingers back over the line of books, she pinpointed where the sense of unfamiliarity had come from. She tipped the large black book, somewhat resembling the old KJV bibles that she used to see in the churches she was forced to go to when she little, expecting that the book would fall to the floor. To her surprise, it didn’t. It stayed in a tilted position, even after Issie had struggled to fully pull the book out.
The sudden clicking of a lock caught Issie’s attention, her head whipped to the left. Near the wall, a bookshelf silently slid to the right. A small entrance revealed itself. She quickly darted to the entrance when she realised that the bookshelf was slowly sliding back to its usual position, and squeezed herself through. She pushed her way through the vines, though some of the thorns pierced her skin. It seemed that blood was simply a price to pay to enter this hidden world.
How had Issie never seen this place before? Surely, she must have noticed it for the last few years that she had been coming here on the regular. She crept across the dingy corridor, not flinching when spider webs caressed her skin, leaving ghostly kisses on her cheeks. She heard the deep rumble of a growl, resembling the tremor that thunder gave off before lightning would strike the land, coming from the end of the corridor. She quickened her pace, for her curiosity was too great, but made sure that her feet lightly touched the ground. Her days of sneaking past her sleeping mother, and their sleeping guard dog, to watch the stars glisten at three in the morning had taught her well.
Fortunately for Issie, the iron-cladded door was slightly left ajar as she peeked inside. The room was as big as the school gymnasiums, yet the equipment did not meet the standards that she was familiar with. Dummies stood with their torsos severely battered in the front of the room, inked with blood and other dark stains that she wasn’t sure if she wanted to identify. Issie slid herself round the corner and hid in between one of the mats that were leaning against the wall. Thankfully, the dummy blocked the view of her head periodically popping out to see what was happening.
The scene in front of her was fascinating. How could she not have recognised that there was a live, hulking, animal at the back of the room? The enormous dark brown wolf stood there radiating with pride and power as it snarled at one of the security guards who stood quaking in his boots. Issie could tell that he had drawn the shortest straw, and he definitely did not want to be there. Before Issie could blink, the wolf leapt a couple of feet in the air at the man and tossed him aside as if he was one of Issie’s old rag dolls. The tiny crack of the man’s skull caused Issie to audibly gasp once she had realised what had happened.
The man was dead. The man, who had fear causing his legs to tremble violently, was now nothing more than a bleeding puddle on the floor.
Issie felt adrenaline rush to her brain. It was better than watching the bears in the forest, near her childhood home, tear apart their prey. Sometimes she would be blessed to watch them fight each other. There was such ferocity in this wolf’s attacks that Issie couldn’t physically tear her head, or her eyes, away from the scene in front of her. The gasp caught the attention of the wolf. Issie’s heart thudded rapidly against her ribcage. She tried to squeeze back into the shelter that the mat provided.
Issie stuck her head back out when she could only hear silence (aside from her pounding heart). At any moment, the wolf could attack her and she wouldn’t have any time to react. This wasn’t the forest. She couldn’t just jump over logs and hide behind trees when she was being chased by bears. There were no logs here. The terrain was even and smooth, unlike the rough, muddy texture she was used to.
She peered around to the find that the beast had suddenly disappeared, and she furrowed her eyebrows in confusion. There were no doors, except from the entrance, and there was no way he could’ve made it there without her knowing. Issie knew she couldn’t fight off the wolf, especially after seeing what the wolf had done to the man, but she knew that she could possibly waste its stamina.
A human face appeared in front of her when she turned to the side. Her heart jumped a mile in the air. Instinctively she crawled backwards. She restrained herself and her composure as she tried to take another glance at the apparent boy in front of her. He stepped backwards and she stalked forwards, one large step at a time. Once she had fully emerged from beneath the mat, she felt like she was on show. His ash blonde, shoulder-length hair followed him as he paced around her.
“The fuck are you?” His accent was a mix between English and …Scandinavian, she thought. His voice had the beginnings of that ‘husky morning voice’ that she always heard her sisters babble on about.
Issie suddenly felt very uncomfortable while he appeared to scan her. Suddenly, his eyes darted from the top of her head to her chest, which made her zip up her charcoal grey hoodie. The action made him pause, and meet her gaze again.
Issie made sure that her face was expressionless. “What? Haven’t you seen a girl before?”
He narrowed his eyes, and digested what she said. “Ha, you’re a funny one.” He paused, apparently taking notice of the black metallic dog-tag slung around her neck. “You’re one of them, aren’t ya?”
He didn’t even give her any time to speak before charging straight for her. Issie ducked out of his way, simply rolling to the right before he could place her into a fatal choke-hold. He skidded to a stop, before he hit the wall head-first, and chuckled darkly to himself.
“You’re a quick one, I’ll give you that.” He smirked, as he wiped at his mouth with the back of his hand. “But I’m faster.”
Issie couldn’t feel her heart anymore. The rhythmic lub-dub couldn’t be heard over the fear that replaced the sound. Her entire brain was on flight or fight mode, and she wasn’t about to fight a boy who was twice the size of her. His heavy footsteps told her how close he was to her, so she changed her direction, suddenly making a right or left turn when she could feel his hands grabbing at the back of her neck. He leapt in the air and pounced at her, and she underestimated the ferocity at which he would attack her at. He grabbed her neck as her head smashed into the wall.
She saw stars. Miniscule blinking stars clouded her vision as he tightened his grip on her neck.
“Thought you could test me, huh?”
Issie shook her head, trying to wiggle out his grip, but this only made her lose more and more oxygen. Out of desperation she elbowed him across the cheek. He dropped one of his hands. She used her free hand to elbow him again – this time near his eye. He roared out in discomfort, and writhed with agony as he cupped his face.
“Who the fuck even are you?”
Issie was dizzy on her feet, but her father’s pride ran through her veins, despite the lack of oxygen she suffered. She stalked towards him, even though there was two of him, and kneed one of him in the gut.
He suddenly fell to the floor.
“Don’t.” She kicked him, once he was on the floor. She kicked him for every word that uttered out of her lips. “You.” The chest. “Ever.” The gut. “Touch.” Kick. “Me.” The abdomen. “Again.” Lastly she kicked him in the balls, for good measure.
Issie started to limp towards the exit, the door that led her back home from this apparent disturbed version of Narnia. At what point did the half-man, half-beast start attacking the little girl in the film? Just as she was about to disappear behind the door, she felt a firm grip on her shoulder. Her heart felt as if it had suddenly taken a cliff dive from her ribcage and descended into the darkest pits of her soul. How could this guy still be walking after what she had just done to him?
“What?” Issie’s voice was still, despite the increasing fear gripping her gut, as she slowly turned to face him.
His cheek was bleeding, and the wounds on his face created little mounds on his skin. She noticed that his scars were quite similar to hers, even though she knew that hers were for a different reason. Her scars were simply expressive, elongated birthmarks, as determined by her father’s doctor, that had become more pronounced with the many wounds and scars she had gotten as a child.
His, on the other hand…
“Sorry. I thought you were one of them.” He looked awkward as soon as the apology escaped his lips. It was as if he had never said sorry before.
Issie didn’t know how to handle apologies. She didn’t know what to say to him. Simply nodding, she shimmied out of his grip, watching his arm drop limply to the side. She grasped at the humour that had got her out of so many uncomfortable situations.
“Guess you’d better learn my name before attempting to kill me.” She smiled, even though her neck still ached, “What’s yours?”
She wondered whether his finger marks were visible on her skin, but she figured that they had faded away once figured out that she could breathe properly.
He furrowed his blonde eyes in confusion. “I don’t know. What’s yours?”
“Issie.” She began to speak but then she realised what he had just said, and backtracked. “What do you mean that you don’t know what your name is?”
He paused. “I mean, they call me Raphael, but I don’t know if that’s my name.”
“Who’s this ‘they’?”
He looked at her in confusion. “The men. They come in here sometimes. Not to fight, but to stick little pads on me sometimes. It’s really uncomfortable but I have to let them do it or I get this needle that makes me really high and relaxed. They stand there, watching, while the guards come to taunt me.”
While he was rambling on to himself, it clicked in Issie’s mind as her mind wandered back to an earlier conversation her father was having while he was making her toast. The other man was weird. He had these strange, outdated, rounded spectacles that kept falling down his nose whenever he laughed at her father’s jokes. There was a mole under his eye, and Issie was sure that there was an entire civilisation living under it.
“Does one of them have a mole on his left cheek?”
He nodded, his shaggy blonde hair fell out of the bun. “How do you know?”
Issie’s eyes widened in absolute bewilderment. She knew who he was. She circled him, watching as his movements replicated hers. He clearly was exceeded in the physical department. A lone nerve ran the entire length of his arm as he tensed it. There were old stitches on his arms, running through the maze of fine blonde hair growing on his arms. The vest that he was wearing was ragged and torn, but she assumed it was because he had been fighting the entire day.
“You’re Archangel.” She muttered under her breath, stopping right in front of his face.
His eyes flickered to black briefly, before returning back to their original colour. Issie studied his narrowly shaped eyes, lifted up by the natural heavy bags underneath. His eyes reminded her of the river, donned as Rio Celeste in Costa Rica, that she had once visited with her mother. She was warned not to step on the rocks to cross to the other side, and use the boat to cross to the other side. Did she listen? Of course not. She had fallen in, simply by accident, misplacing her footing on one of the rocks that she was specifically told not to step on.
This was also one of those times where she was treading in dangerous places.
“How do you know about that?” Raphael took a step forward, to close the little space they had together.
She estimated that he was about 5’’9 to her average 5’’7 size. She tilted her face upwards, nearly hitting her forehead on his nose as she did so. Personal space was apparently a phrase that didn’t exist anymore in their vocabularies.
“I never thought you were an actual living person.” Issie said, more to herself. “They called you the ultimate killing machine.”
“You sound just like them.”
She paused, before she opened her mouth to ramble on about his achievements. She liked to see herself as quite different to them, but in that single moment, she had managed to sound just like her father. Maybe sitting at her father’s side wasn’t the best idea after all.
She stood there, mulling over what she was about to say for a while, before the sound of the hard soles hit the ground in an ordered fashion. Eyeing the mat that sheltered her before, she quickly slid behind it before Raphael could even point at her. He didn’t have to worry; hiding was what she was good at. Her sisters hated it, especially since she always seemed to win at Hide-n-Go-Seek. Sometimes, she remembered, that her sisters would eventually give up looking and would go about with their day. She often found them, after giving up hiding, in the kitchen talking about the next trending topic. Her sisters welcomed her back, apologising for forgetting and swearing that they would never forget her again. Then the cycle would repeat itself. She told them that she didn’t care anymore, that she didn’t mind that they forgot about her. Because she didn’t. It just meant she was good at winning.
She watched as Raphael simply retreated to a corner of the room, sat on the bench, and started to put on his socks. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see the door rebound against the plastered wall, even though earlier she had struggled to push it open. She watched as three pairs of military combat boots stomped their way into the room, their laces neatly tucked in between the gaps. Three pairs of boots, she counted, but there was a reasonable gap between them all.
“Archangel.” She wondered if his eyes flickered back to black, like they did when she mentioned his name. “We have need of you.”
She recognised the robotic voice, and listened intently for the sound of her father’s famous click-clack of his dress shoes.
Speak of the devil, and he shall come. She popped her head out of the mat, to see her father’s familiar black ponytail swing behind him as he walked and settled next to the man dressed in white. Her father was donned in a completely black suit, and stood in complete contrast to the man next to him. He always was one for tradition. The famous ponytail was never allowed to be cut, as he always argued that the heirs of the Tsai dynasty would never cut their hair short.
Her father cleared his throat, loudly. “Raphael. I’m entrusting you with someone who I hold very close to my heart.”
She glanced at Raphael, who was already standing up at the back of the room, with an expressionless face. Yet, he somehow managed to carry that sense of awe that everyone else carried when in her father’s presence. Sometimes, she didn’t get it. To her, her father was nothing but a mere man, with his own flaws and wrong choices. Yet, everyone treated him like he was a god living amongst men.
She couldn’t deny that her father was powerful, but even he knew that power wasn’t the end all to everything. Sometimes, it’s okay to let your walls fall once in a while. It was a phrase that her father often addressed to her, especially after all the fights she managed to get involved in with the neighbours’ kids. It wasn’t her fault that she wasn’t an open person, and it certainly wasn’t her fault if one of the kids needed a gentle pat to the face. With her fist.
Raphael’s shoulders relaxed slightly, even if they were still slightly hunched. “What do you mean?”
“I need you to look after my youngest heir.”
She watched as his eyebrows knitted themselves. “Who’s your youngest?”
Her father paused, apparently lost for words. It was one of the few times that she had seen him visibly agitated. He rarely shifted before people, yet he was shifting his feet in front of his test subject. The last time she could remember that he was like this was when he had to send his wife away again, to somewhere new this time, after receiving a few death threats.
“Her name is Isolde. Likes to be called Issie. She’d probably bite your finger off if you ever called her Isolde though.” He paused again, collected his words and continued onwards. “She’s much like you. Fiery.”
She watched as Raphael scratched the back of his neck. “But why now? Why do you all of a sudden need me?”
Her father walked up to him, and stared down at him. She watched as Raphael clearly shrunk in size as he struggled to keep eye contact with her father.
“You’re the best person I have.” He paused again. “I need the best of the best to save her.”
 Pronounced and spelt = kua-lin.