It was a terrifying-sounding snarl. It should have propelled her to run away, but ironically it was that very sound which made Joey white, gasp, and slowly find the courage to take the smallest step forward.
She knew that sound, Joey thought dazedly. She could never be mistaken about that voice. "Z-Zack?"
When silence was her only answer, Joey took another shaky step forward. "Zack?" The red eyes glowed more fiercely in the dark, but Joey found herself drawing courage from the continuing silence. Vampires liked to seduce to kill, but this one was not speaking at all. Her mind whirled at what this could all mean, but she forced herself to focus on what was most important.
Walking towards the bars, she stopped only when she was a few inches away, certainly easy enough for the one inside the cage to reach her if it – he? – wanted to.
Swallowing, she said, "Zack, I know it's you."
Only when she was about to lose hope did Joey hear an answer.
"You mustn't be here." Soft and grim. And completely sounding like the Zack that she had known throughout her life.
Something inside her seemed to break, making her feel wobbly. If what she suspected was true, then her world would never be the same.
"Let me see you."
Again, a long silence before she heard the sound of footsteps. That sound was for her, Joey knew. Zack was giving her a chance to walk away, to pretend, to forget.
Finally, someone stepped out of the shadows.
She tried to choke back her cry.
Grief flashed on the handsome face before her.
"Zack." It really was him.
They stared at each other, Zack rigidly motionless, Joey doing her best to keep herself from shaking. "How?"
"I'm not a vampire, but…" His lips twisted. "What I am makes it much worse. This is the result of a ritual. A curse…from my father." His lips twisted. "He's laid a claim to my soul-"
Joey was stunned. "But that's forbidden!"
"I'm certain he knows that."
She bit her lip, thinking over his words and trying to put things in perspective. "You don't – won't report him to the Brethren."
"I must think of my clan."
It was exactly what she expected and feared to hear. Zack, after all, was so noble, and everything tended to be black and white in his world. "I know that…I know if you refuse the claim, you'll end up becoming a vampire. Is there a way to prevent it from happening?"
When Zack didn't answer, Joey knew it was not because he didn't know. It was because he did not want her to know. "Tell me," she demanded.
"You cannot help."
Her eyes narrowed. "Tell me."
"Tell me or I'll…I'll ask Niko!"
Zack released a cold laugh. "He will not tell you either."
"Then I'll ask someone you hate almost as much. I will get the answer I need, and you know it, Zack. So tell me-"
A voice answered from behind, "He needs someone else to step in as his Master."
She whirled around in shock.
Her eyes widened.
And he had the whole Morteia with him.
All of their beautiful faces were cold and unsmiling, and they stood tense and still, as if ready to do battle.
She started to ask what was happening, but then Niko's words hit her. She looked at Niko then at Zack and saw in both their faces that Niko's words were indeed true. Zack needed a new Master, and that couldn't be any person. It had to be someone he could trust not to take advantage of a Master's powers over him.
It was in the tip of her tongue to suggest to Zack to have Niko as his Master, but she knew that would never happen. The relationship between a Caro and its Master was different and special, open and deep in a way that Niko and Zack could never be to each other.
That only meant one thing.
"Let me be your Master then."
Both Niko and Zack spoke the same word simultaneously, and it was a toss-up between the two as who was more vehement.
"Why not?" she demanded.
"It will put you in danger," Niko snapped.
"I've always been in danger," she told him quietly. "You of all people should know that."
"Exactly," Zack said flatly. "You don't need more danger-"
She cut him off, saying, "Just give me an alternative and I won't pester you about being your Master."
"I would rather die than let you be my Master."
"But if you insist on not finding another Master then I might be the one who'd die. I'll go to your father and demand that he take back his claim."
Niko had enough. "You cannot make such decisions for yourself so lightly, Joey."
She flinched at Niko's harsh tone. It was the first time she had him speaking to her like that. She didn't like it one bit, but she couldn't make herself back down. Looking at Niko, the cold fury she glimpsed in his eyes made her swallow. "I can't just let him become a vampire when I know I can stop it."
The emotions in Joey's gaze made Niko clench his fists. "You care for him that much?"
Joey blinked. It suddenly felt like the question he was asking had two different meanings. "I-"
Niko's jaw clenched. She did not have to say anything really. The answer was already in her eyes, and it turned his blood dangerously cold. "We must talk." It took every bit of his control to say the words quietly, to wait for her permission when everything in him just wanted to haul her to him and snatch her far away from the other man's presence.
She glanced uncertainly at Zack. Now was not a good time to leave him.
But Zack only gazed at her with hooded eyes. "This is a self-imposed prison." In other words, he would still be here after talking to Niko.
"Don't make any rash decisions," she half-ordered, half-pleaded.
Zack's lips twitched, and a brief glimmer of humor lit his eyes. "Says the pot to the kettle."
She tried to smile but failed. "You promise?"
He said simply, "I'll always be waiting for you, Joey."