Amenei was an easily frightened boy.
He was possessed of an inquisitive nature paired with an overly creative imagination that, in Amenei's mind, hid a lurking beast behind every closed door and beneath every bed. In the wicked little town of midnight Manhattan, a child's imagination can bring such creatures into reality. Mama Hen and the other caretakers of The Nest paid extra special attention to Amenei, because though he may have been timid, he was also extremely unique.
The animal-like mutations present among the Zooks had been fairly singular and benign in their earliest manifestations. A baby girl born with tabby cat stripes, for example, could lead a fairly normal life. Apart from social prejudice, those furry stripes caused no real impact on her day to day existence.
On the other hand, stripes are fairly useless as far as mutations go.
Amenei's mutations were far from useless.
"Bennu, stop," Amenei whispered. His bald head wavered side to side as he peered into the darkness ahead of them. "There's a Lurk hiding."
The ghouls summoned by Dandy Darkly had caused quite a commotion in Tuskt territory. The streets overhead echoed with shouts and howls as the feral man-beasts hunted the walking corpses. The Zook children walked an abandoned access tunnel running east west beneath the Chelsea Biohazard Zone, stopping every so often so the injured Dandy Darkly may rest. They'd managed to avoid the Zooks above, but Zooks just as deadly existed beneath the streets as well.
"What's a Lurk?" Dandy asked as they crouched. Amenei continued to scan the tunnel before them.
Bennu answered, "They're like us -- Zooks. But they live in the dark. Amenei will be a Lurk when he leaves The Nest." The girl's tone betrayed a hint of sadness as she spoke.
"I will not!" Amenei stopped searching the tunnel. "I'm staying at the Nest. I hate it down here. I hate the Lurks."
"Is the Lurk gone?" Bennu smiled at her friend's moxie.
"Yeah. Let's go."
Amenei hated the tunnels. They stunk and everything was dirty. He was afraid of Mr. Montecarlo. The Lurk ambassador stopped by The Nest on a monthly basis to barter information or rarities like medicine, electronics and candy obtained from the Outer City. The black-skinned Zook made a point to call on young Amenei during each of his visits. The ambassador towered over the boy, sweeping his bat wings as he praised Amenei, calling him one in a million and a genetic marvel. All the while Amenei hid, buried within Mama Hen's downy white feathers, fearful of the Lurk's glowing red eyes.
At just eight years old, the boy could already blend into any background by intuitively shifting the pigmentation of his diamond patterned skin. His orange slitted eyes afforded him excellent vision in nearly complete darkness. And though they hadn't yet matured, he was born with a full mouth of retractable fangs and toxin glands situated beneath his collapsible jaw right alongside his lymph nodes. He was akin to the snake, as such Amenei was to be a Lurk when he came of age and had to leave The Nest. He would find a role among the slithering and slimy Zooks who lived in the filth of the Chelsea Biohazard Zone.
Amenei was afraid of the dark.
"Wait!" The boy hissed as he stared ahead. The rattle of his vestigial tail poised to shake in alarm. "Oh. It's nothing."
"Scaredy snake," Bennu teased Amenei.
"I am not a scaredy snake!"
But he was. Amenei, in particular, was also terrified of the man who now walked the twisting tunnels with them back to The Nest. The boy had been expertly hidden in the Tuskt trophy den as the horned creature attacked the children. Bennu had been able to climb into the ceiling, but Amenei froze and hid, changing color to perfectly match the grayish-green shelving behind him. It was from that spot that Amenei watched their new companion conjure the dead.
"He's a death dancer, Bennu! I saw him conjure."
Amenei had tried to tell his friend it was a bad idea to lead the stranger to The Nest. Mama Hen had shared stories with the younguns about the death dancers. They were men and women, humans, who hunted the Klaw clan to wear their faces and skins as they danced in circles to conjure the dead. Bennu dismissed Amenei's recollection of what had happened in the bodega as his overactive imagination. But she hadn't seen the ghouls. Amenei had.
"He saved us, Amenei. An enemy of the Tuskt is a friend of The Nest. He's also hurt. He needs to see Doc."
"It's not safe. He's from the Outer City. They're tricksters. Mama Hen--"
"She'll want to meet him. I know it. Besides, you think everything ain't safe!"
"What's not safe, children?"
The warlock in the torn coat had returned from making a wet. Both of the Zooks went suddenly quiet and looked at their feet. Despite their silence, Amenei and Bennu briefly giggled as they wrinkled their faces at one another. They could smell the man's puddle from where he had gone.
Dandy and the children continued their slow journey towards the south west corner of the Biohazard Zone with no other incident. Bennu was first to step through the shattered brick archway into the industrial basement of The Nest. A ruckus of squawks and honks met Amenei as he followed her into the room that, officially, no younguns are ever allowed into.
An older woman flapped her chicken wings as she rushed toward the children. She was in her eighties. Her hair was cut short and sensible and was as white as the snowy chicken feathers that trailed from her collar bone down to human legs.
"Bennu! Amenei! Where have you? No. Don't tell me. I'd rather not know. You both are in trouble. Big trouble! To your rooms immediat--"
Bennu pleaded, "Mama Hen we found someone!"
The grandmotherly woman stared slack jawed as Dandy Darkly lurched across the broken brickwork and into the dusty storage room. She immediately corralled the missing children behind her wings. Her bright red wattle jiggled as she carefully moved away from the costumed stranger. A pair of women, one with a duck's bill, the other with the loose jowls of a basset hound, stepped forward. They aimed small caliber pistols at Dandy Darkly, who settled himself to the concrete ground with a pained wheeze.
Bennu pushed out from behind Mama Hen's protective wing, "No. He's our friend. He saved us from a Tuskt one."
The armed women looked to Mama Hen for instructions. She regarded the serpentine youngun with his face buried in her belly feathers. She stroked the back of his pebbly scalp and quietly asked, "Amenei, is that true? Did this man save you and Bennu?"
Amenei peeked out from the soft feathers. The battered man laid on the concrete floor. He was so strange looking. Painted and human. He defied classification in the eyes of the little boy. He was unlike anything the little snake boy had seen before. In the boy's mind, the curious stranger was undoubtedly a death dancer, but Bennu and he would have been a Tuskt's dinner had he not used his magic.
Amenei whispered, "He saved us," and buried his face back in Mama Hen's soft belly.
Mama Hen's voice went from assuring to authoritative as she addressed the two caretakers before her, "Nika, please help our guest to Doc's infirmary. Shelby, go up to the High Line. Let the women know we found the children. But I want them to keep watch til sun up. The Tuskts are still riled up out there. And you two," she smiled as she looked down at Bennu and Ameni, "My little troublesome adventurers -- to your rooms with both of you. I'll deal with you in the morning."
Once the children had left, Mama Hen leaned in close to the duck-billed woman who steadied the bleeding warlock under her arm. She whispered, "Let's get a hood on him, too. No telling how many Tuskts he had contact with out there," she paused and sighed. "The poor human is probably infected with the BURP."