Onus Angelorum

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Into the Pitch

There once was a maiden as fair and regal as she was brave. Her witch watched over her noble deeds with pride. The enemies of the Clan became few, but her hunger for slaughter grew insatiable.

With one final act of despair, the old witch cursed the beautiful maiden. The hordes she felled with ax and spear she now must eat with knife and fork.

But as with all things, there was balance. The maiden grew fangs like the vampire and dense fur like the wolf. Her mind sharpened like the witch. And her skin thickened like the armor of a true warrior.

She became hideous to look upon, but her servants were loyal. They tore out their eyes so they could not see her, and they burned their hands with pitch so they could not touch her. Finally, they hardened their hearts, so they no longer loved her.

The maiden’s lonely cries dance on the wind when the moon is full, the night is long, and the road before you is as dark as pitch.

This story from my youth moved me the most—the beautiful princess who turned into a hideous monster. The water-colored beauty at the top of the page was dressed in pink and gold—her long, dark curly hair adorned with jewels.

The monster she became was tall, covered in thick blue-black fur, and held an enormous silver ax. I would run my finger over the textured pages trying to feel the beast as my grandmother read the story.

The old leather-bound book was hefty. My grandmother mused the weight of the book kept the monsters stuck firmly on their pages. This wasn’t entirely true. The stories and lessons the book contained were in my blood all along. Apparently, the truth of the wild tales was also in my bite.

The ambulance siren’s wale drifted far into the background. Will held his forehead in his hands while the paramedics worked on Henry. I did what I could. Henry was alive. His strong heartbeat filled my ears, and his lungs wheezed in protest as they pushed back against the pressure of the oxygen mask.

Every bump and turn in the road jarred him sending my brain into a bath of agony. I held his hands and tried to calm him. I think, at one point, I actually prayed quietly for him to survive.

When we arrived at the emergency entrance, a group of anxious professionals took Henry into surgery. Will and I were helped out of the ambulance by eager hands. I gave one stoic nurse my needle and thread and told her I didn’t see another way to save him. She looked at me strangely then ran after the gurney to show the surgeons my tools.

Will was taken to an exam table down the hallway. I explained how his head hit the pavement when I pushed him out of the way of the first round of bullets. Again, the young attending looked at me like I was speaking gibberish.

I declined any medical care for myself, explaining private help was on the way to collect me. I was used to the strange looks and just smiled at the staff as they insisted I be treated.

Sally and Kevin arrived at the front desk hysterically, asking for information about their sons. Richard stood up from the chair he was hiding in and explained what happened, how it was so fast. How it wasn’t possible to move that fast. How I pushed Will and Henry to the ground right before bullets tore through the metal food truck, killing several people nearby.

Several, quite an ominous word. If it were candy bars or pints of ice cream, I would be delighted, but several measured the lives I traded for one man I barely know.

The word cemented me where I stood. Noise from the world around me turned off. I could hear my heart and what I assumed was my blood rushing inside my body. A numbing sort of peace rolled over my brain, letting me simply breathe in and out.

Henry’s family thought I was in shock, and maybe I was. I couldn’t speak. All I could hear was a high-pitched buzzing noise. Sally tried—she shook me and asked me to sit down. She pulled a water bottle from her purse and helped me take a drink. I showed her my trembling hands gloved in her son’s blood. It took me a moment to find my voice.

“This is Henry’s blood. Number one stop the bleeding, then pack the wound, but it wasn’t working. He’s already blind. I didn’t want him to lose his leg too. I tried to close the tear. The muscle will heal, but the blood wouldn’t stop.” Sally cried, wiping her hands over my face and told me not to worry.

Over her consoling chatter, I heard the double doors of the surgical suite swing open down the hall. Quick, even metered footsteps from a determined doctor echoed across the hard floor. His heartbeat was steady, and his speed let me believe he held good news. I grabbed Sally’s hand and readied myself.

The doctor walked out from surgery to tell us Henry was doing well. They expected the wound to heal nicely. The mute button on my life turned off, and I could hear everything around me again.

Three men walked into the lobby and asked the front desk for Miss Ganas. Not a name I’m unfamiliar with, but their voices were new. I walked toward the nurse’s desk to find my uncle Mike and two of his well-dressed friends scanning the busy hallway looking for me.

“Alerie, my God. Are you okay, Sweetheart?” My mother’s brother didn’t live in my half-human world. Uncle Mike kept the old purist traditions. There was always tension between him and my mother because of the separation. The two men with my uncle walked over to Sally and Kevin and spoke to the doctors. It was the standard storyline I knew well.

“Thank you for your help. We truly appreciate all you have done for her. We retain private family physicians, and we prefer to have them examine her. May we settle any charges she incurred while in your care?”

“Uncle Mike,” I whispered. “It was several.” I maintained my composure for as long as possible, but with my family there to protect me, I broke down crying and couldn’t stop.

The men gathered my things. Richard brought over my purse and phone. One of the strangers picked me up like I weighed nothing at all. He cradled me to his chest like a pet and carried me out the door. I buried my face in his shoulder, and as we hit the outdoor lights.

“The lights burn my eyes,” I whimpered.

“Shh, now. Save your strength, little fluff.” The man hummed and stroked my hair with a slight tremble in his hands. He was afraid, and they were whisking me out of public view as fast as allowable. The man’s unfamiliar touch seemed inappropriate, but his smell was so soothing. Warm vanilla and spiced rum, he reminded me of Leo.

“The home of a trusted clan leader is nearby. We will need his witch. Hang on for twenty more minutes, Sweetheart. I’ll get you the help you need.” Uncle Mike is older than my mother, a pureblood, and a carbon copy of my late grandfather. It was impossible for me not to trust him.

Mike’s voice made me think of the chocolate bars my grandfather brought me and the warm nights we spent on the porch looking at the stars and chasing the lightning bugs. Grandpa said they were fairies, and now I wonder if he wasn’t telling me the truth.

I am a half-breed and considered less important than a pure breed because of my human father. To hear a clan leader from his pure breed world would help made me question how bad off I really was. It was comforting to know that even a half breed would be saved in my world. The clan leaders weren’t going to let me suffer just for being born diluted.

Eventually, there was nothing left of my adrenaline. Exhaustion rolled over my body, one muscle group at a time, leaving behind pain and heaviness. Once the car door closed, I could smell the dirty gravel from the taco truck lot on my once perfect dress.

I felt like a child. All decisions were being made for me. My uncle was terrified. I could see the fear in his face, although he tried to hide his emotions behind his charming smile. He glanced in the rearview mirror several times to check on me and gather silent information from the older man sitting next to me with his hand on my pulse.

As we traveled further upstate, the city lights grew farther apart. The car windows turned to mirrors. My face was melting into a tribal mask. Eyeshadow smeared to my cheeks with layers of black-streaked mascara running down my face, I looked as hideous and disheveled as I felt.

It was a beautiful, green chiffon dream of a man and a life I thought I would never have. I could see it, fifty, sixty years in the future. The only defect—I would outlive Henry. To lose him to time and age was a small price to pay for a human lifetime lived inside that happy image.

I told myself the image was too new. A man that brilliant would eventually find me a problem to be solved. The answer to his problem of commitment or fear was always going to be the end of my dream. It would have ended for us eventually.

We stopped moving. The car jostled back and forth as the men sitting inside hurried to get out. A cold rush of moist night air filled the cabin, waking me to the growing hot pain inside my core.

Fear and weakness poured over my normally rational mind. This was my end, and it wasn’t coming quickly. I would suffer, and I would deserve the pain. Even as the word several rolled in my brain, I would choose to save him again. Maybe if I knew about the shooting, I could have skipped the taco trip entirely, forcing fate to find a new way to screw with me.

A new, warm set of arms lifted me out of the car and carried me some distance in the dark. The man’s chest was firm and rippled under his shirt, reminding me of a shorter, less-chiseled Leo. He smelled like cologne and wood charcoal and mint. I found it easy to relax inside his grip.

A metal gate whined and slammed shut behind me, startling me awake.

Fast, deliberate footsteps on rock pavers kept time with sprinklers snapping in the distance. The air smelled like ragweed and flowers. I pictured an open field bathed in moonlight.

“It’s so pretty outside.” I drifted farther and farther away from the noise. My uncle’s voice and the warm feel of his hand patting my cheek roused my mind.

“Is this what it feels like to die?” I asked.

“No, Sweetheart, this is what it feels like to transform. Stay with me. I’m getting you help. Hold on a few more minutes.”

I took a deep breath of the man holding me. He smelled like the wood fire pit at home, and the lazy nights we spent drinking mint juleps and listening to my father talk about politics. The wistful way my mother looks at my father. That’s what he smelled like to me. I was thankful this last moment brought me home.

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