This is the one.

 

O-negative hits Zan's nose like summer. Something predatory surges to life deep in his brain, something that wants. Unlife is cold, and even at the best of times the craving stings like a snap of frost. For the last three days it's been even worse, the Seeking so cold it burns in his veins. If the one who can ease his torment has finally come, he has to find them. He has no choice.

 

He had been lounging at the bar, ignoring the humans vying for his attention, but at this scent his whole body falls into a stillness no mortal could reproduce. Not even his chest rises and falls.  

 

Behind the bar, Duncan in his velvet dress is making zombified Kurt Cobain and Marilyn Monroe some obnoxiously blue mixed drink. His pitch black eyes, typical of their kind, stare at Zan in question from behind a white half-mask. Zan shakes his head and slides away from the bar, staring into his club like he's seeing it for the first time.

 

Delicate yet immense chandeliers hang from the ceiling, each strobing bulb an appropriately gothic shade of red or blue or purple. Surrounding the dance floor are the plushy couches and chairs of expensive clubs, with intricate metalwork tables between them. A balcony winds around the upper half of the room. The black chrome staircases leading up to it are by the bar, one on either side. In the center of it all, costumed humans dance to music only they can hear. No loud speakers hammer the top forty into his enhanced eardrums like in other clubs. Every couple, or triple, of grinding humans bumps along to their own music in wireless headphones. Playing up the inhuman mystique was a main conceit of the club, and the humans loved it.

 

Slowly, he prowls through the silent dance floor. Dracula snaps his velvet cape while Lucifer rides his thigh, but the scent captivating Zan's senses doesn't come from either of them. A tiny girl in a bloodstained tutu sways in place, shot glass held over head. It's definitely not her. The heady smell is tinged with a male musk. None of the absurd, gyrating 'monsters' are the source of his salvation, so Zan can't help but abandon the dancers and head toward the entrance.

 

Many pairs of eyes watch him as he goes. Zan doesn't mind; he knows what he looks like. Gold stitching twinkles from the seams of his black ensemble. A ringmaster's waistcoat, sleeveless, exposes the tan skin of his arms. Sinfully tight pants are held in place by his favorite leather belt, gold buckle shaped like a mask. Even his hair is dark where it waves out from under a top hat's brim to tickle the top of his mask. Striking in its contrast, his white pantalone mask with its slanted eyes and comically long nose is the only part of his clothing that isn't black and gold.

 

The mask doesn't diminish his preternatural senses, of course. Above the salt of human sweat, the musk of cannabis, and the sour stink of liquor, Zan can smell blood. No doubt the blood whores who frequent his club like bar flies have scratched their thighs and stomach just enough to bring blood beading to the surface. It's an old trick meant to attract his kind, but he couldn't be less interested. Usually they're so appealing with their air of desperation and sunken eyes, but the fog of pheromones coming from their fresher bites repulses him. 

 

No, it isn't the blood whores. The smell of his prey is coming in from outside, he realizes as he arrives beneath the EXIT sign.

 

With absentminded pride he surveys the borderline mosh pit frothing beyond the velvet ropes. A mob at the door has not historically been a blessing to his kind, but these humans come with custom, not pitchforks.

 

Girls in silvery spiderweb dresses, eyes covered by columbina masks like Duncan's, are already working the crowd. The Columbines decide who makes it through the door first. All the mortals in the crowd laugh and pose in their costumes to capture one's attention. One by one, the Columbines pair off, each leading a lucky human to the door. But all of that is routine, and none of it interests him. 

 

One of the humans, a boy in black, is swimming through the cloud of freaks and monstrosities with his head down, as if he's trying to avoid notice. All of Zan's awareness shrinks until only the boy fills his vision. Tiny braids of blond hair stick up all over the boy's head. His chest is bare under a jacket decorated with a white ribcage. The matching skeleton pants are tucked into calf-high boots capped with shiny metal over the toes. This boy will thaw his blood. Somehow, he just knows. 

 

Closer to the front now, the neon glare of the club's logo—a whole-face mask with a finger raised in front of its lips—glints off the white bones of the boy's outfit. 

 

Zan's two burliest men are posted by the door tonight. Directly under the sign's light their black eyes glitter, the only part of their faces not covered by the square-chinned bauta mask. Each doorman is dressed in the bouncer's uniform: leather pants, platform shoes, and identical chest harnesses. The ring where the studded straps meet in the middle of their pecs is a hollow Z. Bondage gear seems so banal to Zan, but it's the only automatic authority most humans have the frame of reference to understand. 

 

The boy hesitates at the sight of them. Even with the distance, Zan can easily hear the exchange.

 

"Beat it, kid," says Geoffrey, the one on the right, his snarl muffled by the mask.

 

"Oh, b-but I have I.D." The boy supplies it. Pulling a plastic card from his jacket's inside pocket, he briefly flashes a slim but tightly muscled abdomen.

 

"No way you're twenty-one." The other doorman—Robert, Zan thinks, his newest hire—takes the license. He stares at it. Then offers his companion a glance.

 

Geoffrey eyes the kid again. "Open your jacket."

 

Biting his lip, the boy spreads open his leather ribcage. At the glimpse of the toned chest ice water splashes through Zan's veins as the Seeking thickens. There's various nicks and cuts all over, slashes on the boy's ribs, a zig-zag on his right side, and a peculiar honeycomb just visible above his left hip. Old wounds all, painting the boy in pale scar tissue.

 

"Let him in," Zan whispers, voice easily reaching his men.

 

Smirking, the two guards share a knowing look. 

 

"Welcome to Masquerave," says Geoff to the boy. "The only club where the Dead live."

 

The other hands back the ID and waves him inside. "Rent your headphones at the bar."

 

Zan vanishes into the crowd as the boy enters, still watching him. The boy hovers just inside the door, and it's easy for Zan to imagine how intimidating the club looks for a first timer. 

 

Wading through the press of bodies is the only way to make it, so the boy takes a deep breath and goes for it. Navigating the swarm outside was nothing compared to the silent floor, but once again the skeleton-clad boy manages to meander his way without offending anyone with his presence. With a relieved sigh he takes a seat at the bar.

 

Zan seizes the moment and slides onto the stool beside the boy. "Hello, there."

 

The boy's eyes widen as he stares. Staring the boy in the eyes, Zan slowly removes his mask. The boy can't look away, taking in the tanned skin, high cheekbones, and slightly slanted coal-black eyes.

 

"H-hello." He's still staring.

 

Smiling, Zan asks, "What's your poison?"

 

"Um, just a coke for now," the boy squeaks. "Please."

 

Zan cocks a brow at the boy. "Nothing stronger?"

 

Blushing, the boy shakes his head. "I…I just got here. I want to, like, pace myself?"

 

"Is that so?" Zan looks up at Duncan, and the androgyne sweeps closer. "A coke for my new friend…"

 

"R-Ryan," the boy sputters after a beat.

 

"A coke for my friend Ryan."

 

"Sure thing, boss." Duncan's singular voice sets visible goose pimples flowing up and down the boy's flesh.

 

"You're th-the boss?" Ryan asks, eyes wide as Duncan sets the soda down. He snatches it up quickly. 

 

Even the boy's gloves are decorated like a skeleton's hand, Zan notices. "I'm Zan."  

 

After wiping his condensation-wet gloves on his pants, not that the leather absorbs any liquid, the boy takes his hand. 

 

"How do you like my club so far?" Zan holds the handshake longer than strictly necessary. 

 

"It's great," Ryan says quickly. "It's my first time. I mean, uh…" The boy's cheeks color again. "I mean, I've never been here before."

 

"I know," says Zan. "I'd have noticed a pretty boy like you."

 

The redness spreads from the boy's cheeks across his whole face as he drops his eyes. He scrambles for the glass and takes another drink. Zan's black eyes watch his throat bob.

 

"I've always liked the name Ryan." Zan scoots his stool closer. "It means little king, did you know that?"

 

The boy shakes his head.

 

"Aren't you going to ask what my name means?"

 

Ryan barely manages. "W-what's your name m-mean?"

 

Zan leans closer, puffing cool breath against the boy's ear. "It means favor."

 

Fingers wrap around Ryan's chin, keeping his head in place as Zan pulls back. Heat tingles in Zan's fingers for the first time in days at the touch of the boy's skin.

 

"You smell good, Ryan." Zan's nostrils flare, scenting him again. "Almost too good. You know the secret, don't you?"

 

A fine tremble breaks out all over Ryan's body. "I…I don't know why…why I'm here—"

 

"I do," Zan says, calm and confident. He turns the boy's face to the side, brings his other hand up to slide one chilly finger down the boy's neck. "This is why."

 

Zan can smell the saline gathering in Ryan's eyes, and the gathering blood of his arousal.

 

"I don't want to be here." Ryan's voice is barely a whisper, but of course that makes no difference to Zan's hearing in a quiet room.

 

"Yes, you do." Zan's free hand travels to the boy's groin.

 

Ryan is already firming up, a semi pushing against his fly. At the touch of Zan's hand, Ryan's eyes squeeze shut.

 

"Look at me."

 

A tear slides from the corner as the boy opens his eyes.

 

"This doesn't lie, Ryan," Zan coos, petting the bulge. "You do want this. I'll have to punish you for lying."

 

He gets up, fingers on Ryan's chin taking the boy with him. Duncan will return his mask to him later. Ryan's face flames as Zan leads him through the club. Eyes firmly fixed on the floor, he doesn't see the dancers part like Moses's sea around them, or the woman in a silver cocktail dress on the top floor that watches them through her own pair of obsidian eyes.  

 

At the top of the staircase, Zan moves with intentional slowness, guiding Ryan's head at a speed to give him a good look at the balcony. Wide black doors are set into the wall. Each has a different colored handle. A few couches and chairs are placed every few feet. Some of them are occupied by his people. Their black-masked humans kneel beside them. 

 

The petite woman in silver is waiting for them, hip cocked against the railing of the balcony. A normal looking young man in black slacks and a white button-down dress shirt is kneeling beside her, hands behind his back. She hasn't given him a mask, but then she never does. Selda likes her pets to own their humiliation. Her toy's shirt is untucked and unbuttoned at the last three holes to reveal his belly button. His fly is unzipped, exposed cock locked up in a metal chastity cage. Two starburst puncture marks rest on his lower abdomen, right above his cock. They're slowly oozing blood. Ryan can't tear his eyes away from them.

 

"Having a boy night, Zan?" she asks, voice husky yet aloof, like an old Hollywood starlet. Her platinum blonde a-line compliments the comparison.

 

"You too." Zan recognizes him. "And a senator's boy, at that."

 

She tips a shoulder just enough to look coy.

 

He grins. "Ryan this is Selda. Tell her why you're here."

 

"I…" the boy's voice dies.

 

Zan's fingers tighten around the boy's chin in warning. "Tell her."

 

"M'being punished," Ryan mumbles. 

 

"Already?" Selda asks, nonchalant. "Whatever for?"

 

"…Lying." 

 

"I'd make that dishonest tongue lick the floor until it bled," Selda says. There's no heat in her tone, only honesty. 

 

"I have other uses for his tongue," Zan says. "It's only his first offense."

 

Selda arches a brow. "Just the belt then?"

 

"I like the classics." Zan shrugs. 

 

"Thank your master for his mercy," Selda snaps at the boy.

 

Ryan whispers, "Thank you, master."

 

"Don't mention it, pet."

 

Eyes narrowing, Selda takes a step closer. Her own pet shuffles forward to maintain position next to her.

 

"His scent…" she sniffs. "Must be O-negative."

 

"Oh, definitely," Zan says, voice almost chipper. "And if those scars are anything to go by I'm not the first to notice."

 

"A natural blood whore," she scoffs. "I like a good chase, personally."

 

"You're not seeking," he points out.

 

"Glad I made my centennial without it," she says. "Is he the one?"

 

"Haven't had a taste yet," Zan says. "But I think he will do."

 

"Seems a shame to waste a universal on a seeker," Selda says.

 

Ryan whimpers as Zan's fingers tighten.

 

"He's mine," he hisses.

 

"Of course," she demures. "I only meant that his blood will be no good to us if he's the one."

 

"True," he says. "Good thing we have another O-negative already in residence."

 

"For now." Her eyes roll. "Even for a universal she seems awfully eager. She's in the Red Room right now."

 

She gestures to the door closest to them.

 

He laughs. "Still?"

 

"Yes." Her voice is filled with distaste. She continues, "Well, I shouldn't have kept you. That boy needs some seeing to, I believe."

 

"Yes, he does," Zan says. His voice goes low and hungry. "So do I."

 

"I'll leave you to it, then." Selda clicks her impeccably manicured fingers, and her pet falls forward onto his hands and knees. "I hope he satisfies."

 

"We'll be taking the Gold Room," Zan says.

 

"Naturally," says Selda.

 

She saunters down the balcony, her pet in tow, disappearing behind the second-to-last door. Its handle is silver.

 

"Perhaps we won't waste all your blood." Zan tugs Ryan's face again. "This way, pet."

 

The Red Room is done top to bottom in blood-red velvet. All the furniture is meant for reclining: couches, lounges, and fluffy chairs. They're filled with humans wearing red masks. All of them are being bitten.

 

Usually it would be such an appealing sight, but the debauchery is nauseating. Blood, sweat, semen, female slick, all of it combines in a stench that torments, rather than tantalizes him. Ryan will change all that, Zan thinks as he wanders between the rows of leather furniture.

 

One long fainting couch on the far side of the room holds a young woman with a blood-stained nighty pushed down off her chest, and up off her sex. She has a security member, each in outfits identical to the guards at the door, on each wrist. Between her legs is a slender man with a shock of red hair, which clashes fantastically with the coppery metal bondage gear he's wearing, lapping at her opening.

 

"Tyler," Zan calls.

 

The one in copper peaks over the girl's thighs, mouth bloody. "Yes?"

 

"This boy needs to make a small donation before I start with him," Zan says. "Quickly, before Duncan's ready for you."

 

Tyler sighs, but rises from his place. The girl moans in protest, bucking her hips up at him. He pays no notice as he comes closer. He pauses, nostrils flaring. A grin breaks his bloody face as he continues closer. 

 

"Another one?"

 

"This one is mine." Zan's tone leaves no room for disagreement. "However, if he does satisfy the Seeking, it would be a shame to waste his blood. Take only one bag, Tyler."

 

Tyler nods eagerly, reaching toward the boy.

 

Zan's hand shoots out to grasp Tyler's neck. "One bag, Tyler."

 

"Of course, Bringer," Tyler says, rubbing at Zan's chest. "I wouldn't defy you."

 

"See that you don't," Zan says. He pulls Tyler close, pushing their mouths together.

 

Tyler opens wide, sharing the iron tang still in his mouth. The girl's blood tastes like ash, but Zan knows the Seeking is to blame. Usually, there's no finer treat than a universal. Satisfied with Tyler's obedience, Zan pulls back.

 

"Even she can't thaw the Seeking." He nods his head at the girl.

 

"Too bad." Tyler pops his fingers from in front of his lips like a chef. "It's her heavy flow day, great vintage."

 

"I'll have to take your word," Zan says, pulling Ryan forward. "Go with Tyler, pet. When he's done with you we'll get to back to business."

 

Tyler takes the boy's hand with an eye-brow waggle, and starts away.

 

"Oh, and Tyler?"

 

"Yes?" Tyler stops, looking over his shoulder.

 

"That boy might be your brother, soon." Zan gives his fledgling a significant look. "Be gentle with him."

 

"Awww." Tyler throws his arms around Ryan's shoulders. "I always wanted a baby brother."

 

As they walk away he can hear Tyler say, almost kindly, "He's strict, but he's fair."

 

With a golden handkerchief pulled from his breast pocket, Zan takes a moment to wipe the girl's taste off his mouth before it can aggravate him further. Once satisfied, Zan starts after his boys, but a grip on his leg stops his progress. He looks down to see a human dressed as Tarzan, visible erection tenting the man's loincloth. A Columbine, Zan forgets which one, is latched on his neck.

 

"Help me," the man whispers, fingers clenching on Zan's leg. 

 

Rolling his eyes, Zan reaches down to grab Tarzan's hand. A quick wrench and the mortal's wrist breaks. The man shrieks, but Zan can smell semen as he floods his leopard print.   

 

Moving on, Zan tunes back into Ryan and Tyler. They're on the far side of the room, Ryan reclining on a lush cot next to a bar. Blood-filled tubing connects the boy's elbow with a bag hanging next to him. Zan smiles, but then hears them speaking. 

 

"…That's what the Seeking is for," Tyler is saying. "He didn't wait for it to bring me over, or any of his other fledges, but that's what seeking means. You're ready to make the perfect fledge."

 

"If I'm the one, Selda said." Ryan asks, "What does that mean?"

 

"May not take. If your blood doesn't satisfying the craving, you're not the one," Tyler answers. "Only certain people can slake a seeker's bloodlust."

 

"Why?"

 

"No one knows." Tyler shrugs.

 

"How long?" Ryan whispers. 

 

"Depends," Tyler says. "Sometimes it can take weeks. Zan's strong, though, so it probably won't take more than three or four days."

 

Racing through the room at speed, Zan appears behind Tyler's shoulder without either boy noticing.

 

"So no reason to worry just now," he declares.

 

Both boys snap their head up at the sound.

 

"Oh, look!" Tyler says with false brightness. "You're about done."

 

"Good," says Zan. His hand falls to Tyler's shoulder.

 

The redhead winces at the squeeze.

 

"You and I will speak later." Zan's eyes promise the conversation will not be pleasant.

 

Ryan shrinks away, trying to dissolve into the cot. Zan catches him in the act, and forces himself to relax.

 

"No need to worry pet, I'm not mad at you." His tone is soothing.

 

"You're not?" Ryan asks.

 

"No," he says. "A little curiosity about our world is natural. Of course, I had already planned to explain everything you needed to know in due time."

 

Tyler flinches. 

 

"We don't even know if the seal will take, however," Zan continues. "So I'd like you not to worry about it."

 

Ryan opens his mouth, but the look on Zan's face makes it close, noiseless. 

 

"Okay," he says instead. "I won't worry."

 

"That's good, pet." Zan smiles at the human boy, then scowls at Tyler. "Get him finished up. I'm tired of waiting."

 

Tyler finishes preparing Ryan's blood. He doesn't risk his bringer's displeasure with any further discussion. 

 

"There," he says, slapping a bandaid across the tiny red dot where the needle had gone in.

 

"Finally." Zan holds out his hand, and Ryan takes it, only to pitch forward. 

 

"Easy, pet," Zan says, steadying the boy.

 

"Dizzy," Ryan says, squeezing his eyes shut.

 

"I know, but only for a moment," Zan says.

 

"We have juice," Tyler starts to say, but breaks off at Zan's glare. 

 

"That won't be necessary," Zan says. "Soon he will be mine, and all will be well."

 

"Only if the seal takes," Tyler mutters.

 

"It will," Zan says. "Now, to the Gold Room."

Act 0.1: paper faces on parade

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