A Second Look
“You wouldn’t. You’re too much of a coward, anyway.”
The yellow Kacheek’s hands balled up to fists at the Xweetok’s words. “I’m not a coward,” he exclaimed, glaring at Laurence. “Of course, I would. I’m not scared of anything.”
A lie, but there was nothing else Matt could say when faced with Lauren’s gang. He didn’t know why they liked to pick on him, but as he stood on the lonely street just outside the Haunted Woods where they had intercepted him after school, he didn’t have a choice but to play along with their game. Running was useless; Laurence and his friends were older and faster than him and they would catch up easily.
“You’re not scared?” Deep laughter rang from Laurence’s throat. “Then why do you look as though you’re about to wet your pants?” As if on cue, the older boys started laughing at their leader’s joke.
Matt swallowed, trying to ignore the lump in his throat and the prickling in his eyes. He wouldn’t cry, not now, not in front of them. “If I go in there, will you leave me alone? Not just now, but forever?”
“Leave you alone?” Laurence put a finger on his lips as though he was deep in thought. “No, not forever. But if you dare stepping into the old house, we’ll leave you in peace for the rest of the school year.”
Judging by the expression on the Xweetok’s face, he didn’t expect Matt to accept the deal and that was all it took the young Kacheek to nod. “Okay. I go in there and you leave me alone until the end of the year.”
Laurence exchanged a glance with Tom, his best friend and follower before he nodded and stretched out his hand. “We have a deal.”
Hesitantly, Matt reached out, ready to accept the challenge when Laurence added in a whisper, “But if you drop out, you’ll have to face the consequences.”
Matt gulped at the smirk on Laurence’s face, but he didn’t pull back. Wincing at the Xweetok’s strong handshake, he tried to understand what he had just agreed to. The old house, as it was called by everybody, had stood empty for as long as he remembered. Legends told that an Eyrie had once lived there, but that had been long ago, before Matt's birth. He must have been old, older even than the Brain Tree if you believed the stories and had rarely left the house. At the first of the month, though, he had ventured into the village and bought herbs and potion ingredients at the marketplace. One day, he hadn’t come. At the beginning, people had believed that he had fallen ill and would show up a few days later. But weeks had passed and nobody had caught a glimpse of him.
“Scared?” Laurence’s voice shook Matt out of his thoughts. Of course, he was scared. How could he not be? More than once, he had heard strange sounds from the old house when passing it on his way home, howling and whimpering, but nobody could explain the source of these noises. A few weeks after the Eyrie’s disappearance, a search party had gone into the building, trying to find out what had happened to its owner. They had never come back.
“Why would I be scared?” Despite Matt’s efforts, the trembling in his voice betrayed the fear he felt. As he slid his feet over the gravel, dragging himself to the house, he didn’t have to look back to know that Laurence and his gang were watching him. The yellow Kacheek was cornered between a haunted house and a gang of bullies with no way out.
The cooper doorknob felt cold under his fingers as he turned it around and pushed the large entrance door open. As it squeaked loudly, causing Matt to jump, he was immediately rewarded with the laughter of Laurence’s friends behind him.
Gritting his teeth, Matt stepped into the room, letting the oak door fall shut behind him and with it closing out the laughter. How long would he have to stay in the house? If he spent ten minutes in the entrance hall, would it be enough to get rid of Laurence for the rest of the year? They would never know that he hadn’t gone farther.
Leaning against the door, his heart racing, Matt let his eyes roam through the room in front of him. He couldn't see any traces of the monsters that were supposed to inhabit the house, but that didn't mean that they weren't real. Dust covered the floor of the small entrance hall. Three doors lead further into the house, all of them ajar, and over the staircase to his left, he would be able to reach the first floor. But as he stood with his back against the entrance, the Kacheek knew that he would never go any further. He would stay here, wait for the time to pass and then leave to never come back.
That decision in mind, he slid down to the floor.
‘...358, 359, 400...’
Hugging his knees, Matt wished not for the first time that he owned a watch. Knowing how long he still had to stay here would be easier if he didn’t have to rely on counting seconds. He wasn’t even sure how long a second lasted or if his nervousness didn’t make him count much too fast.
While he tried to estimate the time, his eyes wandered between the three doors and the staircase, watching out for danger. People in the village told different stories about the howling and whining everybody had already heard at least once when passing the house, one more frightening than the other. The Eyrie’s ghost still lived here, some said, while other swore that it was the search party haunting the house, or a creature from far away, so scary that everybody who saw it died instantly from fright.
‘... 412, 413, 414, 415...’
Matt froze as a loud howling sound cut the silence. His head snapped to his right where the noise had come from just as a whimper echoed through the room. Unable to move, he stared at the door. Something was here, maybe just one room away from him, separated by a door that wasn’t even closed.
Once again, the unknown creature howled, breaking Matt from his trance. He sucked in a deep breath as he jumped to his feet and whirled around, reaching for the doorknob. Which direction did he have to turn it to open the door?
Rattling at the oak door, the Kacheek glanced to his right. Had he just seen a movement there? Had the door always been that wide open? Had it just moved?
Screaming, Matt let go of the knob and ran, away from the noise and the movement and up the stairs. Boards creaked under his feet and he stumbled, quickly pushing himself up again. He didn’t dare looking back, too scared of what he might see there.
The corridor on the first floor was barely lit and he didn’t take time to examine it further. Matt pulled open the first door to his right and stormed inside, slamming it shut behind him. His eyes closed, panting heavily, he leaned against the door and prepared himself to push with all his force should the intruder try to enter.
“Those sound effects are awesome, aren’t they?”
Opening his eyes, Matt found himself facing a creature unlike everything he had ever seen before. It looked like an Eyrie, and at the same time, it couldn’t have been more different from the Eyries Matt knew. Its small wings were equipped with two claws and the soft Eyrie paws replaced by hoofs. Was a piece of its ear missing?
The scream was stuck in Matt’s throat as he stormed out of the room, not listening to the creature shouting after him. He needed to get out of here. Accepting Laurence’s dare was the worst mistake he had ever committed.
Laurence. Would he notice if Matt never came out again? Would he inform the Neopian Defenders, or tell Matt’s parents? They would worry if he didn’t come back home today.
In the dimly lit corridor, Matt didn’t pay much attention to the floor and that’s how he missed the turned over corner of the carpet. His foot got trapped and he flew forward, racing towards the ground so quickly that he didn’t have time to brace the fall with his hands. Pain shot through his body as he hit the ground and an instant later, he finally released the scream that he had been holding since facing the monster.
The monster. He didn’t have any time to lose. It couldn’t be far behind him. At any moment, it could get him and then he would end up just like the search party that had never come out of the house again.
“Are you hurt?”
There it was. Matt tried to scramble to his feet when a hoof pushed him back down to the floor. The creature had gotten him.
Looking around, his mind racing, he began searching for a way to escape. If it came to a direct fight, he didn’t stand a chance. But maybe he could find a weapon, a small knife or a vase that he could use to defend himself.
It didn’t take him long to realise that the corridor was completely empty.
“Hey, stop thrashing around.”
A second hoof pressed down on Matt and he stopped all movement, barely daring to breathe. This was it. He was going to die, killed in an abandoned house by a monster.
“You’re scared of me, aren’t you?” The creature sighed. “Just like everybody else. Not even my own father could stand the sight of me.” Bitterness swung in its voice.
Before Matt had the chance to say anything, the creature shook its head and continued, this time in a much more cheerful voice. “How old are you? You can’t be that old; I’d guess that you’re still a few years younger than me. Courageous little guy you are. Not even that search party dared coming into here, and all those little instruments I’ve invented have been good at keeping people away.”
Matt nodded, unsure of what to say. This was not what he had expected to happen. Why would the monster talk to him before killing him?
“My name’s Julian, by the way. Or Juls, whatever you prefer.”
Did he just imagine it or was there the hint of a smile visible on the creature’s face? In the dark corridor it was difficult to say but Matt was sure he could recognise wrinkles around the eyes.
“If I free you now, do you promise me not to run? Those doors don’t lead anywhere anyway, just a guest room and a lab, but I doubt you’ll find anything useful in there besides rusty cauldrons.” Julian shrugged.
“I... I promise.” His voice shaking, Matt was relieved to feel the pressure lifting from his shoulders. As he sat up, he watched Julian carefully, still not trusting him. What if it was all a trick? At any time, Juls could jump and eat him.
For a moment, they eyed each other until Matt dared speaking up. “What are you?”
“An Eyrie. Or at least I guess I am.” Julian sighed. “It’s not easy to tell, is it? I’ve never even seen any Eyries in my life, except for the ones in books and on paintings. But my father told me that I would become an Eyrie, so I guess that’s what I am. I haven’t been always like that. When I was younger, I looked just like you, a yellow Kacheek.”
Matt’s eyes widened. A yellow Kacheek? That was impossible, there was no way that he himself would be able to turn into something that hideous. “What happened?”
“My father.” Once again, Julian’s voice turned bitter. “He wasn’t happy about me being a Kacheek. I should be an Eyrie, he said, just like himself. Proud creatures they are, those are his exact words. He would turn me into one. I spent my childhood watching him brew potions until he had finally found the one that would turn me into an Eyrie forever. Now look at what I have become.”
Julian stretched out his wings and flapped his tail. “Proud creature. I’m hiding here because even my father found me too hideous and left me. I scare people, people like you. Don’t tell me you weren’t scared of me when you first saw me.”
“I... well, I’m...” With a sigh, Matt rubbed a hand over his eyes. “Yes, I was.”
“But I’m scared easily,” the Kacheek quickly interjected. “I never would have come into here if it wasn’t for Laurence and his gang. Other people are more courageous and not frightened as quickly as I am.”
“Laurence?” A deep-throated laugh ran from Julian’s beck. “That Xweetok that’s standing down there on the street and looking at his watch every few seconds?” The laughter increased. “And I had been wondering what he’s doing there and why he looks so nervous. He probably thinks he’s killed you by sending you in here.”
Laurence? Nervous? Those words didn’t fit together in Matt’s mind. Laurence never got nervous and he wouldn’t care if Matt got killed in the old house. On the contrary. He would probably even brag about how he got rid of the yellow Kacheek forever.
“Hey, I know, let’s teach him a lesson. It’s been ages since I’ve last played a prank on him and that one could benefit both of us.”
“Are you ready?”
Matt grinned. “Ready as I could be. On the count of three. Three... two... one... GO!”
The Mutant Eyrie pulled open the window, howling loudly.
“You cannot escape through the window. The fall will break all of your bones, and your wings are too small to fly,” Matt shouted, trying to let as much rage and power swing in his voice as possible. Even though he could not see Laurence standing on the street, he knew that by now, they were all looking up to Julian.
“Then you leave me no choice but to kill you.” A shout echoed up from below before Juls slammed the window shut again.
“How was I? Did it come over scary enough?”
Matt chuckled. “Definitely. Could you see their faces? What did they look like?”
“Like they were about to wet their pants. They’re now convinced they’ve sent you to your death,” Julian grinned.
A large smile spread on Matt’s face. “When I come out and tell them that I’ve beat you, they’re never going to bother me again.” His smile fell. “But what about you? What’s going to happen to you? Don’t you want to leave this place someday? You should go and meet people, I’m sure they would love you if only they knew that you aren’t as scary as you look.”
Julian shook his head. “No, they wouldn’t because they would never take the time to get to know me. I’m not like them. This is my home, and this is where I belong. If you could spread word about how scary this place is so nobody comes to look for me, I would be very grateful.”
“But what if we take it slowly? I could bring a friend here, maybe two, they could get to know you and then...”
“No. My place is here and not outside.” The Eyrie smiled sadly, stilling Matt. For a moment, they stood in silence until Julian spoke up again. “Although, if you could maybe come and see me from time to time, I would like that. I could show you the sound system I’ve installed in the house or we could go and explore the rooms in the dungeon.”
Matt nodded, swallowing the lump in his throat. He had made a friend today, one that he could still continue seeing even if he could never share it with anybody else. “I will do that... mate.”
“Good. And now get out of here, you’ve got a story to tell to your little friends. Mate.”