Fated by Lark Quinn

1

Max

The scent of blood stuck in my nose. A familiar scent, for me, a natural-born killer. In blood, I had been born, and in blood, I would die.

Hangman’s Park sat to the west of Devil’s Run and was shrouded in mist that morning, as I padded across the gravel, the small rocks pressing into the thick leather of my paws. It might have been cold, I didn’t know. My hide was thick, and white as the snow, hailing from the land of my forefather’s, a country shrouded in winter more often than not.

Devil’s Run was warm in comparison. The scent of blood was thicker here, in the corner of the park by an old, crumbling well. In the old days, I’d heard they used to hang witches and druids from its high walls, and their screams would echo for miles. They say the scratches of their scrabbling nails still stripe the old stones inside.

Not these days. Not in Devil’s Run. Mikhail Volkov and his pack of wolf bratva ran this city, and the only people put to death were those who broke his rules. Then, the death was by claw and fang, not a gentle sway of a rope.

I knew more than others about the punishments that the Volkov pack meted out. I was the tip of Mikhail’s claw, second in command. Second strongest, second-most blood-thirsty, and next to wear the crown of bones, if something should ever happen to Mikhail. I didn’t worry about that though. I would make sure it didn’t.

I sniffed around the well, my head almost coming to the top of the high wall. Death and decay met my senses, a sick and metallic scent that hit to roof of my mouth, and made me pant. There was definitely a body inside the well.

The young wolf had gone missing a week ago. Her family had reported it to me three days ago. I estimated, based on the stink, that she had been down there five days. I was too late to help, but I wouldn't be too late to find the culprit and rip their throat out.

No one killed anyone in Devil’s Run without Mikhail’s approval, especially not another wolf. Female wolves were rare enough, our own pack had only a third of the number of male wolves. To waste the life of a young, healthy female made dark black rage fizzle at the edges of my mind.

I ran to the woods and headed east toward the Volkov bratva compound. The compound sat to the north of the city, way above the river. South of the river was the twin city of  San Niccolo of Midnight, more commonly referred to as Old Nick, or Midnight. In Midnight, wolves were thin on the ground, and bloodsuckers reigned supreme. We had a tentative peace with the vampires, neither side wishing to disturb the status quo, but I knew that Mikhail thought often on the wisdom of letting the immortal dead control that city. Vampires were the antithesis of everything wolf. They had no balance with nature, they drank blood and avoided sunlight. They were monsters. Of course, they had their own opinions on their neighbors, but I’d always rather be an animal than a dead man.

I entered the back of the compound through a gate in the high fencing, and a sentry saw me coming and recognized me. No one was allowed inside that wasn’t known. I ran through the houses that sat in neat rows, toward the central square, before skidding to a stop at the sight before me.

A taxi was drawn up beyond the gates of the compound, and a girl had gotten out. She paid and then turned to look up at the tall, stone and metal gates before her. Winterborn had been the stronghold of the Volkov family since Mikhail’s father, Anton, had built it with his own hands. He, and my father, Ilya, had taken control of Devil’s Run, fifty years ago, and made it into the city it was today, ruling with a blood-stained fist. He had adapted it from an old manor house that had sat above the city. The original building remained, the rest had been built on and fortified.

I watched the girl, as she headed toward the sentries post, and spoke with the guard. My wolfish hearing picked up their voices with ease.

“Isabelle! It’s been so long. Ivan will be surprised to see you,” Artur, the security guard today said. He leaned his long, lean body on the gate beside Isabelle’s and smiled at her. A huff left my muzzle.

Isabelle.

My best friend’s youngest sister.

The belle of Winterborn. The youngest woman to come of age in the pack. I hadn’t seen her since she’d left to live down south for a few years, attending an exclusive college, Black Lake Academy. The college was renowned in our part of the world for being the most elite, and influential academies for the study of the supernatural. That Belle would return here after such an illustrious education was never in question. She had been sent there to benefit the pack. She’d always been smart, and when she’d become interested in studying the occult, and the different groups of supernaturals, Mikhail had realized her potential. As she turned her head, her red-gold hair caught the light, shining like a crown for a moment. She looked different, and yet the same. Little Isabelle who had followed me and her brother around until she was chased off.

Isabelle.

Of course, it was her. I saw it now, the headstrong, opinionated teen with the obstinate jaw transformed into the woman who stood now at the gates, smiling so prettily at Artur. She had always been pretty, but now, ripened with age, she was a true beauty. I huffed again, my wolf getting pissy and annoyed. I turned from the sight that set my teeth on edge and stalked toward my quarters in the original stone building that housed the majority of bedrooms in Winterborn. I had to change and get dressed, before getting back to work, heading down to brief Mikhail on my findings, and then getting my men out to collect the body and track down the kill site. I didn’t think the young girl had been killed at the well. There just wasn’t enough blood scent for that. I shook off my strange sense of foreboding, and loped upstairs toward my spacious quarters, ignoring the slight burning itch under my muzzle that my annoyance at seeing Isabelle talk to Arthur had set alight.

I couldn’t afford to waste time.

I had dark deeds to see to, as was my job. Mikhail commanded, and I enforced. It was my honor as his second in command.

* * *

Beneath Winterborn,a maze of rooms dated back centuries, or so the stories said. Now, much like then, it was where we kept the people who had gotten on the wrong side of the Alpha. The rooms were rarely unoccupied. You didn’t keep the peace in a city stuck between warring packs of wolves, vampires, and other supernatural beings by making friends. We had plenty of enemies, and it was my job to take care of them.

I descended the stairs to the basement. It was carved from stone, and resembled a prison, with cells lining the corridor, as I walked along. There were several slumped figures sleeping in some of the beds that I passed. Further in, there were other cells, these ones more of the medical variety. There was nothing more dangerous than an injured wolf. Sometimes we had to lock up our brothers while they were treated. Even more dangerous was the bitten. Humans undergoing the change were volatile, and most of all, they couldn’t be allowed free to roam. They might scratch or bite others when they were desperate and afraid, mid-change. Instead, we locked them down below and waited it out, to see if they’d survive it.

Now, I went to a room we used for questioning. Viktor was already inside, I could smell his familiar scent as I approached. The youngest recruit into bratva life, Viktor had an ease and cheerfulness that only time would knock from him. I would be sad to see it go. I rapped on the door and went in.

Viktor sat on one side of the metal table, looking for all the world as laid back as he would be poolside. Across the table from him, a white-as-death vampire sat, wooden stakes nailed through his hands to the table. Blood pooled beneath his chair. It stank like death.

“If you’re not going to kill me, and get it over with, then you might as well ask me some questions that I can answer,” Benedict said.

Benedict was no stranger to the dark places beneath Winterborn. We picked him up at least once every few months for his various illegal activities. Not illegal in the sense of against human law, but against Volkov law. This time it had been an illegal blood lust room he’d been operating for a hefty profit. Vampires, like anyone else, I supposed, had different tastes in their food. A blood lust room was where vampires would pay premium prices to meet different donors, humans, witches, shifters, you name it, and feed on them. It put the bitten into some sort of lust-filled haze. Maxim didn’t allow it. The only sanctioned blood exchanges done in Devil’s Run were to Mikhail’s benefit, with his blessing.

“Kill you? Just for a little illegal business dabbling?”

“Oh, I see, this is just foreplay then, is it?” Benedict smirked, wiggling his fingers on the table.

“It’s to get your attention,” I corrected. Benedict sighed and nodded.

“Consider it gotten. Now, what can I help you gentlemen with?”

Initially, we had only brought Benedict here to punish him for the illegal set-up and convince him to stop, but now, in light of the body in the well, it was worth questioning him while he was here.

“We found a body in the well in Hangman’s park. A young, female wolf. Know anything about that?”

“A body? That’s no fun. I don’t kill when I drink, it’s not my style.”

“I’m not saying that, but I want to know if you’d heard anything about it,” I said, leaning over and pulling one of the stakes from the table with a wet rip. Benedict’s eyebrow lifted, and he lifted the freed hand, and rotated the wrist, as his skin quickly closed up. I twirled the stake in my hand and used the tip to clean under my nails.

“I hear all kinds of things, in my line of work. Nothing much from the vampires though, nothing much at all. The witches? I might have heard something about that…”

“Witches?” I repeated, looking at Viktor. Witches weren’t known to drain bodies of blood, well, not the ones that I’d met anyway.

“Hubble bubble, toil, and… a whole lot of blood, apparently.” Benedict shrugged. “Who knows what witches like to do. Great blood though, a very delicate flavor,” he smirked, and it was chilling. He wiggled his fingers and at my nod, Viktor pulled the other stake free.

“I don’t have to tell you not to open up that blood-drinking joint again, do I? If you want to apply for a license from the office, I’ll get you the paperwork,” I said flatly. Benedict smirked at me.

“I know you’re joking, but I just might do that.” He stood and straightened his long leather duster jacket. His bare muscle-bound chest gleamed white as the moon under the electric lights.

“If you hear something about the witches, come to me first, and I’ll make sure you get it,” I told him. Viktor looked at me curiously. Benedict nodded, hiding his own surprise, before giving us a jaunty salute of farewell.

“Will do, chief, now, it’s been a pleasure, as always, worry not, I can see myself out,” he said, and made his way out the room, whistling a jaunty, melancholy tune. I sighed and sat back down at the table, ignoring the pools of blood.

“A deal with a vampire?”

“Blood tasting rooms are always going to pop up. We aren’t vampires, we can’t stop them… better to partner up on them, and take a cut,” I muttered, dropping the stake on the table. “I have to go downtown and see the Alpha. Clean this up, would you?” I said to Viktor as I stood. He sighed.

“How did I know I was going to get stuck with the clean-up work?” he complained.

“Hey, newest in does the bitch work, that’s not even just bratva law...” I said as I headed to the door.

“It’s not? Whose law is it?” Viktor called.

“Mine,” I tossed back at him, before ducking out.