He can’t take much more, I think, as I stare at the bloody mess that Mikhail has become. The dull thud of fists pounding naked flesh echoes around the concrete basement. The coppery scent of blood fills my nostrils, and despite my best efforts, my stomach rumbles with hunger. I can’t help it; to a werewolf, the scent of blood usually precedes a fresh meal. It’s in our nature. As is violence, or so I’m told. I’m not so sure about that myself. Watching Mikhail getting pummeled doesn’t rouse any primal instincts in me. All I feel is pity.
As Alpha of the Silver Ridge Pack, my father Nikolay decides when and how pack members are punished. I’m not even sure what Mikhail did to warrant such a brutal beating, but Nikolay is Alpha and his word is law.
I study him now, Nikolay—I don’t allow myself to think of him as my father—as he stands back, watching Zak carry out the punishment. His hard face is unlined with age. Serious silver eyes watch the proceedings, a slight frown on his lips. At least Nikolay doesn’t seem to take any joy in it, which is more than I can say for Zak.
Zak winds up for another punishing blow, lips twitching up in the corners as his fist connects with Mikhail’s midsection. His eyes light up, shining with vicious enjoyment every time a new crack is heard. By my count, Mikhail now has four, maybe five cracked ribs. That, combined with his dislocated jaw and crushed right eye socket, means that even with our accelerated healing, Mikhail is going to be laid up for a few weeks at least. The cuts and bruises covering his face and body I’m less concerned about—those should heal within a day or two—but broken bones take time to heal, especially when one has as many as he does.
I look back at Nikolay, wondering when he’s going to call an end to this sickening display. Nikolay glances next to him at Ivan, my grandfather.
So that’s who this show is for. Nikolay doesn’t want to look weak in front of him. You’d think at his age, he would have outgrown this need to impress his father, but I guess some things never leave us.
Ivan is Alpha of his own pack in Russia. Werewolves age slower than humans, but even so, as old as he is, the fact that Ivan is still able to maintain his position as Alpha speaks volumes about his strength and cruelty. I’ve heard rumors from the old timers—the ones who emigrated from Russia with Nikolay when he decided to set up his own pack in the US—that Ivan has ties to the Russian Mafia. You haven’t seen brutal until you’ve seen him handle disobedience in his pack.
At least he’s not making me carry out the punishment this time...
At that thought, Ivan looks straight at me, the hard planes of his face clenching tight. Shit. He caught me while my mind was wandering. I snap my eyes back to Mikhail, but it’s too late. The damage is done.
“Grayson.” Ivan’s cold voice carries like a thunderclap through the crowd. “Since you seem so bored, why don’t you take over for Zak? You are the future Alpha, after all.”
At Nikolay’s nod, Zak steps back, the downcast corners of his mouth the only indication of his displeasure in not being allowed to finish the job.
Damn Ivan. I want no part of this, but with Nikolay’s consent, I have no choice. I carefully school my face into a blank mask and step forward to finish where Zak left off.
I scrub my skin over and over, long after the shower runs cold. Rust colored water swirls around the drain, standing out against the alabaster tiles at my feet. My skin stings, my normally tan arms now pink after scraping off several layers of skin. No matter how long I scrub, I can’t remove the feel of Mikhail’s warm, sticky blood. An image rises up of his beaten body, lying cold and still on the concrete floor. I shudder, shutting off the now icy water.
Grabbing a towel with unsteady hands, I barely notice the small cuts and bruises on my knuckles, already healing. One of the perks of being an extremely dominant werewolf. I’d almost prefer to be lower in the pack hierarchy and never be forced to brutalize a weaker man again, except then I’d be at the mercy of the other dominants in the pack, like Zak, and it could very well be my hide strung up and beat for all the pack to see.
No, better to be strong, to be able to protect myself. Things won’t always be this way. One day I’ll be Alpha of my own pack, and then I’ll give the orders.
But that day is far in the future. Too far... Until then, I’m stuck obeying.
I freeze at the sound of someone striding down the hallway toward my room. I rub my hands over my face. I need to pull myself together. I can’t let Nikolay or Ivan see me like this.
Gripping the sides of the sink, I take a slow, deep breath and stare hard at the mirror above, the silver eyes of my reflection boring into me, calming me.
Get it together, Gray.
When my hands are steady, I wrap the towel tighter around my waist and set out to face my visitor.
My body relaxes when I see Vasily, Nikolay’s second in command. “How you holding up?” he asks, his amber eyes studying mine.
“Fine,” I lie, pasting a lazy half-smile on my face.
He raises one dark eyebrow. I’m not fooling him. “He had to do that, you know.”
“Nikolay had to have me beat a pack brother like that?” I ask, anger leaking into my voice. If it was anyone else, I wouldn’t dare question the Alpha’s actions, but this is Vasily; he’s been more of a father to me than my own.
“Mikhail left him no choice. He refused to stop seeing that human. He challenged your father in front of the pack.”
This is news to me. I remember Mikhail was dating a human, Megan or something, a while back, but I thought that had ended. It isn’t forbidden for werewolves to date humans—several people in our pack are currently doing so, including my best friend Derek. But they all understand that when it comes time to take a mate, they choose a werewolf. Packs are all about strength, and mating a strong werewolf to a fragile human weakens the pack, diluting their power.
“If that’s the case, why didn’t Nikolay punish Mikhail himself? Why have me do his dirty work again?”
“That was your grandfather’s doing,” Vasily answers, voice sharp. “And even if it wasn’t, your position as the Alpha’s son demands that you show your strength. You are going to lead this pack someday. You can’t have them all thinking Zak is more dominant than you.”
“Zak.” I snort derisively. “He doesn’t have the balls to challenge me openly.”
“Don’t be so sure of that,” Vasily warns. “He doesn’t relish the idea of having to take orders from you one day.”
“Let him challenge me. I’d love nothing more than to put that mudak in his place.”
Vasily nods in approval. “Now you’re beginning to sound like the Alpha’s son.”
I grimace, not wanting to discuss Nikolay any longer. “How is Mikhail holding up?” I ask, turning away on the pretense of grabbing a t-shirt from the dresser. An image of Mikhail’s shattered body rises to the surface, but I shove it back down, relieved Vasily can’t read my expression right now. I can’t show weakness. Pulling on a pair of faded jeans, I keep my back to him, waiting for his answer.
“I had Allison take a look at him. She healed his more serious injuries. He’ll be down for a couple weeks, but he’ll live.”
Allison is one of the witches in the Ashwood Creek Coven. She isn’t the best healer they have, but she’s adequate. Our pack has an alliance with her coven, extremely rare in our world where witches and werewolves have an almost inbred hatred of each other. But a few decades ago, Nikolay decided that joining his pack with the Ashwood Creek Coven would only increase his own power, and so treaties were written up. Now we coincide peaceably in this small town in Vermont.
Turning back to face him, I hide my relief behind a careless shrug. “And what excuse did you give for his injuries?”
“I told her it was a dominance fight,” Vasily answers.
I nod my head. “Yeah. Dominance fight. Good cover.” Although the coven generally doesn’t interfere in pack business, I can’t see them turning a blind eye to the brutal punishment Mikhail just received. If Madelyn heard about it, she would almost certainly have something to say to Nikolay, which would only increase the tension between them. Those two have been butting heads for as long as I can remember. Vasily said once that it has something to do with Madelyn’s daughter, Elizabeth, who disappeared almost twenty years ago, but I’ve never heard the full story.
“Alright, enough about Mikhail,” Vasily says. “What’s done is done.”
What’s done is done: the werewolf credo. There’s no point bemoaning the past, hoping to change it; it doesn’t do any good. Live in the present, not the past.
“Come on. Your father has business to take care of, so we’re leading tonight’s hunt.”
Shaking off the ugly events of the night, I feel a small smile lift one corner of my mouth. “Time to hunt,” I answer.