To humans, the Livingfire School for Caros is a private academy built for the children of an elite organization.
And in a way, it was true for were not Caros elite and could their secret race not be considered an organization? Caros are special beings who live by drinking blood. They are extraordinarily powerful, exquisitely beautiful, extremely cunning, and as a rule, they are governed by three desires: power, wealth, and passion.
They are also innately selfish and manipulative. Cold, too – for Caros have extremely black-and-white views of life. If you were to cross one and the laws of life prove you wrong, a Caro would not hesitate to break your neck in the blink of an eye, with nary an expression marring their cold and pale faces. Caros are not creatures quick to anger, but if their fury is ignited, it lasts forever.
"There they are." Everyone began whispering. Different words but the same meaning…different reactions but the same feeling… All eyes were trained on the small group of individuals that had just entered the canteen.
They were collectively known as the Morteia, Caros that had been summoned by Fate to defend their race from the greatest dangers. The identities of the Morteia were only revealed when their race faced the greatest perils, and these times were certainly that.
The Morteia was the hidden power behind the Brethren, Caro's governing council. They were not to be mistaken for leaders or peacemakers.
They were never that.
The Morteia were born and bred to be killers and for that, even their own kind was afraid of them.
But of course, fear often can turn into excitement, a dangerous kind of attraction even.
She should know.
She felt it herself. She was attracted not just to one of them. No, it was never that easy for her. She was attracted to the Prince of the Morteia, Niko de Luca. Maybe it was even love. But it had nothing to do with the fact that he was Morteia. If anything, she regretted such fate for him because it meant that he had to constantly risk his life for their race.
She had always, always, always liked him, ever since they met three years ago and she had saved his life, and he had saved hers in return.
She had been running for her life, unable to believe that vampires truly existed. And they were not the beautiful, gentle creatures that fiction portrayed them to be. They were horrible, bloodthirsty, and evil.
She ran, oh God, how she ran.
But he was too fast and soon he was upon her. She could not believe she would die this early, and so close to home…but no help would be forthcoming even if she called, was there? Her father was a drunk and her mother had left them long ago for another man.
The story of her life was no different from the thousands who led the same impoverished existence she did, but it never diminished the pain and frustration that plagued her every night. She yearned constantly for a chance to change her life and believed that God would soon grant her plea.
Could death be that chance she had been waiting for?
She felt so weak. She had no urge to fight anymore. Her eyes closed slowly as she gave in to the inevitable. Maybe life beyond death would be Paradise.
But nothing happened.
"Open your eyes, angela piccola."
She did and the most beautiful person was smiling at her tenderly. "Don't give up on life just yet, hmm?" He had black hair that flashed like sapphires under the light. It was a unique shade that never failed to dazzle. His eyes were the same, turning midnight blue to ebony, depending on his mood.
She blinked rapidly, but the vision did not go away. Was he real?
But there was no time to ponder such things for the growling behind them told her that the danger was far from over.
She watched warily as he closed his eyes, as if exasperated. When they opened, his fangs had protruded and his face became a cold, unreadable mask. The face of a killer, she thought, for only a killer would be indifferent to taking and losing lives.
And a vampire, she thought right after, her breath hitching. She had been almost killed by one and saved by another?
She hardly dared to breathe as the fight ensued. He was alone against so many of them and she stood up, thinking madly of a way to help him.
"No." It was him. He had not looked at her, had not stopped slaying.
But she knew what it meant and sat back down with shaking knees. He did not want her to interfere and she would follow him because right now, she did not know anything and she feared him causing more trouble.
There seemed to be no end to the fight. But it did stop. Bodies lay before them on the ground. She had never thought she'd see so many dead bodies. She wanted to throw up but stopped herself…or tried very hard to.
"Thank you," she whispered as he approached her.
She gasped when he suddenly stumbled down and she rushed to him. "What's wrong?" she asked, kneeling before him.
"Careless," he muttered almost inaudibly.
There was so much blood. Would he still live?
"Do you…do you…do you need to drink from me?" She did not know where the words came from but knew they were right the moment she spoke for them. This young man did not seem to be the type to take blood just from any person for any reason.
He did not speak.
"I won't mind. I want to repay you for saving my life."
She had almost thought she had to ask him again when he finally nodded.
She closed her eyes and waited…and almost gasped when his lips grazed hers before kissing so deeply there was no other recourse but to kiss him back and letting him inside her mouth.
"It will hurt less this way," he whispered against her lips.
She had no time to understand him because in the next instant, his fangs had pierced her neck. There was only the slightest bit of pain and after that it was ecstasy.
He insisted on walking her back home afterwards.
Covered by darkness, he stopped when they were only a few feet away from her front door. "Take better care of yourself, angela."
And then he was gone.
Her father was drunk again. He beat her for coming home late but the pain of his attack was blunted out by the memories. For the first time, she found something to anchor her amidst the beatings: one that would take her away from this world of hurt.
She concentrated on remembering his face, his smile, his voice, and oh, his kiss.
She thought she would never see her again, but she was wrong.
He came to her home the very next day, dressed beautifully in a suit that may have looked ridiculous on other young men. But on him, it looked exactly right.
Her father was gaping.
Soon, she, too, was gaping. She could not believe he was buying her from his father!
And then it was done.
Alone, they faced each other. Her father had long left, thrilled at the astounding fortune given to him for selling his only flesh and blood.
"You know it was the only way for me to take you away from him, don't you?"
With perfectly clear hindsight, she realized it was true and she nodded.
"I owe you a favor and with our race, favors have to be returned at all cost. With this, I repay you. Do you have somewhere to go?"
She opened her mouth to lie.
"I thought not."
She crossed her arms defiantly against her chest. "You don't have any responsibility towards me."
"I think I do." It was almost as if he was murmuring to himself. "I fear I do."
She felt hurt at his words and became even more determined not to be beholden to him. "I can protect myself."
He looked at her as if he had forgotten she was there.
That irked her even more. She was about to tell him he could leave when he spoke again.
"I have a safe place for you, one where you will be loved and protected."
She drew back warily. "There's no such thing."
"Such havens are admittedly few, but they exist. You know in your heart they do. This is the chance you have been waiting for, is it not? The chance to turn your life back around? Will you not take it?"
And she remembered then. Hadn't she promised to herself that she would?
"I'm scared." It hurt to reveal the truth.
His cold eyes became gentle. "Don't be. I will always be here for you."
Joey stretched luxuriantly on her bed, smiling at the feel of sunlight against her face.
"Good morning, princess."
It was her foster father, Ricardo Esposito. He was the Board Chairman of the Livingfire School of Caros, the human to whom almost all Caros entrusted their children's future. He was a wonderful father and his love for her, which had been there right from the start, had made it easy for her to embrace the new life he and Niko de Luca had given her.
He was already in his sixties, but looked twenty years younger. He had long given up on marriage but had still dreamt of having a child. Niko de Luca had known this and it was why he had asked the older man to adopt Joey. Her biological father had not put up a fight, not when he was paid yet another fortune for it.
He handed her a steaming mug of coffee. It was one of the many ways he spoiled her.
"Good morning, Father." It had taken her about a year before she could call him that. But now it felt absolutely right. "You shouldn't have done this. I keep telling you-"
"It's just my way of making you feel loved." In the three years they were together, Ricardo still felt frustrated that he could not do more to atone for her childhood. Silly old man. As if he really owed her anything.
"I already know that."
"Love is something you can never get enough of. Especially when it's from Niko de-"
"Father!" she growled.
"You're blushing," he pointed out laughingly.
"Just stop about Niko de Luca! We're just friends! Honestly!"
He looked at her knowingly but said, "If you say so."
Although Joey was human, she, too, was educated at Livingfire School for Caros. Ricardo was grooming her to succeed in his position when he retired in the distant future and she was happy to be trained because she could not envision anything better and safer. Even these days, safety was still her first priority and she felt safest within the protected walls of Livingfire.
Their morning recess came and most of the students went to the canteen – it did not look like one, though, and rivaled the elegant restaurants found at five star hotels – while a few opted to eat outside school. Livingfire was liberated that way.
As what's usual, she ate with her two friends. Eden was one of the few humans like her who studied at Livingfire. She had been orphaned early and adopted by her family's Caro sponsor. She was quiet and thoughtful, but occasionally displayed a ruthlessness she had probably learned from her Caro family. She was tall and willowy, with long straight dark brown hair, and an ivory complexion that made her look like a Caro herself.
Zack, on the other hand, was a pure-blooded Caro. His hair was the lightest of gold – something he inherited from his European mother – but his eyes were the color of darkness. He was considered to be one of the most popular guys in school and would have been more so if he just wasn't…so…scary. He spoke only when he had to, glared almost the rest of the time, but for some weird reason, Zack didn't intimidate her and she had treated him no differently the first time they met. It was probably the only reason why he spent time in her company – she was the only person who would not gush or run away at the sight of him. With Zack, it was always one or the other, for guys and girls alike.
A hush descended on the canteen and she knew without looking it was the Morteia again.
Eden continued eating serenely but she and Zack looked up from their food as they passed.
There were seven of them – two of which were girls and considered to be a miracle by many. Most Caro males had not the strength to become part of the Morteia.
The Morteia looked straight ahead as they walked towards their table, one specially designated for them at the end of the hall. Their red and gold uniform, which was similar to what was used by the Brethren, was awe-inspiring. Each and every one of them, even the playful Dashin, was just as awe-inspiring.
She held her breath when they neared their table. She always did that.
Niko , who always walked behind the rest of the Morteia, stopped before her table. He always did that, too. She was never the one to initiate conversation. It was always him.
"Hello, Joey." His voice was soft and melodic. The other Morteia stopped, waiting and watching silently.
She willed herself to act normal, especially with almost every Caro girl in the canteen scowling at her in jealousy. "Hello." Their eyes met.
He smiled at her. "How is your father?"
"He's good as always," she said, unable to help but smile back.
"That's good." His eyes settled on Zack for a second – there seemed to be an unspoken bond between them, one that resembled enmity – before nodding to Joey and rejoining the Morteia.
"Honestly," she whispered to Zack. "What is it between you and Niko?"
"Absolutely nothing," Zack said blandly.
After two more classes, lunch break came and she went inside her father's office without knocking. They always shared lunch together and it was a time she always looked forward to.
"What's for lunch, Fa-" She stopped dead on her tracks when she realized there was someone else in her father's office.
It was Niko de Luca and he stood up at the sight of her. Caros were a lot of things, but they sure did have lovely manners.
"Hello, Joey. I hope you don't mind me joining you and your father for lunch?"
"Of course she doesn't," her father said heartily as he stood up, too. "It's just like old times, isn't it?"
If looks could kill, her father would be six feet under now.
The three of them proceeded to the conference room that adjoined his father's suite. It also served as a dining hall when necessary. "You used to come visit us all the time," Ricardo continued. He was about to pull a chair for Joey but Niko had already beaten him to it. He hid a smile but his eyes were twinkling.
She glared at him before saying stiffly to Niko, "Thanks."
"My pleasure," he said with another gorgeous smile then took a seat next to her rather sitting at her father's other side. It was a very unconventional position, especially for Caro standards, and her father choked back a laugh.
She honestly couldn't understand Niko de Luca. He was doing all sorts of things that made her think the impossible. He almost made her believe that he liked her. But that couldn't be. He was the Prince of Morteia and a Morteia prince was only allowed to marry a Morteia like him.
She wasn't a Morteia. She wasn't even a Caro. So what hopes were left? But she was being too presumptuous, wasn't she? He still hadn't said anything that would let her-
"May I?" His soft voice startled her and Joey realized that he was holding her table napkin. She nodded and he placed it over her lap.
"Thanks," she mumbled. She could feel her father grinning and didn't dare look at Ricardo.
"Always my pleasure to serve," Niko said.
The meal proceeded with Ricardo carrying most of the conversation. Niko spoke when he had to while Joey stayed mostly silent.
"So, Niko, I was surprised – pleasantly surprised, of course –at your visit. To what do I owe you the pleasure of your company?"
"Nothing. I simply missed the company of your family." Niko answered in a pleasant voice, one that made the words seem a polite formality.
"Ah. I thought you were particularly missing-"
She stepped on her father's foot as she interjected hastily, "How is your training, Prince-"
"Niko," he said.
"Niko," she repeated and felt a rush of happiness. Only a few were permitted to call him by his first name.
"It is as it always is." Niko's vague answer did not surprise her. He tended to be secretive when it came to the Morteia.
"How about you, Joey?"
He nodded as he patted his mouth with his napkin. He put the napkin down and turned to look at her. "I notice that you and Zack Mancini spending a lot of time with each other. Perhaps there is something I should know?"
There was nothing in Niko's beautiful face or voice to reveal his thoughts or feelings on the matter.
But she still could not help wonder. Was this mere curiosity on his part or was he actually…jealous?