The boy lay among the rocks, shivering from cold and fear, with nothing left to do but pray.
He had survived what should have been a fatal fall by the dubious fortune of glancing off the sides of the narrow ravine. He had a laundry list of scrapes and bruises to show for it, but he was alive, and aside from the ominous pain lancing through his right leg, intact. Fate then spared him a second time when the huge boulder above him, rudely awoken by his sudden intrusion, had been caught a hair's breadth from flattening him by the rest of the rockslide that now half-buried him.
But then his luck had run out. He was stuck, barely able to breathe from the weight on his stomach, and dared not move lest he upset the precarious balance and finish the job. He had cried, called and shouted until his throat was raw and his face was stained with tears, but even as the sky began to darken, nobody answered.
He had fallen silent after that. What things may hear him after dark this far from home, he did not want to find out.
Already the shadows around him were deepening, and his mounting fear whipped his young imagination into a frenzy. Two pale dots of light seemed to peer at him from the darkness. He tried to tell himself they were just shiny rocks, unmoving minerals reflecting the fading light of day back at him, but he couldn't take his eyes off them.
But his quiet gasp of horror must have given him away, because the unmoving lights moved.
A figure floated out of the shadows. A pale girl in a pale dress - no ravening monster, to be sure, but the boy well knew that which wore the human shape was to be feared all the more. Her blue-gray hair fell to her waist, well-kept but roughly cut, and her overly long bangs nearly obscured her sunken, luminous eyes. Her dress, similarly clean yet curiously torn at the edges, was a faintly purple color, adorned with a matching bow and a white capelet. Her wide sleeves hung well past her wrists, completely enveloping her hands, and her lengthy skirt hid her feet even as she hovered above his eye level.
She could easily have been a ghost, or ghostly youkai, but for one distinctive feature: four oddly ragged insect wings fanned out from her back. They swept back and forth lazily, almost as an afterthought, taking a good three seconds or so for each beat. The boy had never seen a fairy quite so blatantly unnatural, but he knew - or at least fervently hoped - that was what she was.
He held still and quiet as a mouse as she drifted closer, until her face was mere inches from his own. At this distance, he could see she was about his size - maybe even slightly larger, but not by much. She stared at him, unblinking and unspeaking, for what felt like an age. Then, abruptly, she reached toward him. He flinched and shied away, but felt only a slight weight lift from his side, as she plucked a small rock off him.
Slowly and deliberately she began to clear the debris away from him. She soon drifted out of sight around the boulder, and the boy felt his left leg finally freed from the pile. The moment she touched his right, however, it felt like she'd stuck it full of knives, and he instantly squealed in agony.
There was a pause. A feather touch against his shin. Another. AnothePAIN.
The rest of the clearing proceeded even more delicately.
Finally, the fairy's head appeared above the boulder again. She surveyed the great rock as if looking for something, then seemed to lay down on top of it, hugging it. She felt around with her fingers for a moment.
And then, to the boy's astonishment, it moved.
He looked on in awe, mouth agape and pain forgotten, as the fairy ponderously, but without visible exertion, lifted a rock at least three times her own size into the air and set it gently down several feet away.
Superhuman (superfae?) feat completed, she brushed herself off, drifted unhurriedly back to him, and poked him in the stomach.
After carefully probing a seemingly random selection of points all over his body, she gently slid a hand under his head and helped him sit up. He hissed and clutched at his leg, but offered no further complaints as she continued her examination to his back.
Seemingly satisfied with whatever she found, she slipped her arms under him and lifted him clear of the ground. He yelped and whimpered as his leg dangled, and she adjusted her hold slightly, cradling his head against her shoulder as if to comfort him. He was so preoccupied with the pain that he noticed too late she was carrying him the wrong way - deeper into the darkness, not out into the light.
It rapidly became too dark for him to see at all.
He squeezed his eyes shut and huddled against her, hope and a child's instinct willing him to believe she wouldn't have gone to all that trouble if she meant him any harm. It was dark, it was quiet, and thanks to their slow, airborne progress, it felt totally still. They could be in a cave, they could be in a cloudy night sky, they could be ticking a dragon's tonsils, and he wouldn't know the difference.
The journey felt like an eternity.
There was one sense he did still have, though, and the absence of any other quickly brought it to the fore: smell. He could smell an earthy scent, not like dirt, not like rock, but something deeper, more primal... with just the slightest hint of something else. Smoke. No, soot. Something burnt, but not burning. At first he thought it was coming from the depths of the earth as they travelled through it, but as he shifted slightly, sniffing curiously, he realized he was smelling something much closer.
It was, somehow, the fairy's own body odor.
It... was a nice scent, somehow. It made him think of huddling near the firepit on a stormy night. A rabbit, curling up in the safety of a burrow. Safety and warmth rolled into one. Maybe he was just imagining things, but it was a pleasant thought, and it kept the less pleasant ones at bay.
In fact it distracted him so much he almost didn't notice he could see again. Not that there was whole a lot to see, mind: a crude wooden shack, stuffed into the back of a cave, with a single cracked glass window, from which a weak yellow glow was shining.
The fairy floated up to the door and flicked it with a hidden finger three times, making a painful snapping sound in lieu of knocking.
The shack creaked strenuously, and the window groaned open. A face consisting entirely of wool, eyes and beard sprouted forth.
"Hmmmm? What's this? " It said in a thin, wheezy voice, "A human? For me? You shouldn't have!"
The boy gulped and shrank away. The fairy simply stared.
"Hee hee hee hee! Let an old man have his little joke! Why are you here then, hmmmm?"
The fairy once again said nothing.
"Oh? I see! Well, I certainly can, but it'll cost you, you know?"
The boy felt the fairy shift slightly, then heard a dull jingling by his ear.
"Hee hee hee hee! Well then, come on in!"
The window groaned shut again, and the whole shack began to creak alarmingly, as if it was about to fall on top of them - or perhaps sprout legs and wander off. There was a loud thump, a crash, and a silence almost like a sigh, before the door ground open with an earsplitting belch of wood scraping against wood.
The fairy carried the boy inside.
"Up on here, let's get a look at you."
An old man, short and hunched, with six abnormally long, thin and hairy arms, which he leaned on as though using them to move as much as his feet, patted a rickety-looking table that had seen better days. It was stained with a variety of colors, none of them particularly reassuring.
The fairy obediently set the boy down, but to his relief, did not move away.
The hairy old man creaked his way around the table and ran his long, hairy fingers over the boy's injured leg. The boy winced, hissed and shivered, but did his best to hold still.
"Mmmm, you were right to bring him to me, you know. Break like this could have crippled him for life." He looked up, and flashed a worryingly fanged grin. "Don't worry boy, we'll have you patched up in a jiffy... but it's going to hurt!"
Without any further warning, the old man grabbed the boy's knee and ankle and pulled. A searing, burning pain shot through the boy's entire body. He flailed around in agony, and would have brained himself on the table if the fairy hadn't caught him and held him still.
As suddenly as it started, and not a minute later, the pain stopped.
"Still with us, eh, boy? You'll make a man yet!" The old man leaned in close. The boy gagged at his breath, which smelled of tobacco and rotting fish. "Now, feel this?" The man pinched the boy's toe, which he felt, but only distantly. "Don't you go putting any weight on this until the numbness wears off. It'll fold right back up otherwise! Hee hee hee hee!"
The fairy's hand-sleeve inserted itself between them, bearing a collection of strange coins. The old man leaned close, peering at them. He picked one up, sniffed it, then stuck out a tongue three times the size it should have been and slobbered all over it.
"Now now, don't get testy," he told the glaring fairy. "Old habit, that's all!"
He scooped up the rest of the coins, then creaked his way back to wrench open the door again. The fairy carefully lifted the boy once more.
"Break a leeeeg! Hee hee hee hee hee hee!" the old man called after them, punctuated by his foul-mannered door.
The silent darkness felt almost comforting after that.
The second journey felt shorter, though whether it actually was or if it just passed more quickly without the nagging pain, the boy couldn't say. It was also slightly less uneventful, in that they passed through a cloud of hot, foul-smelling air. It came and went in a moment, and the boy tried not to think about what it was, because it felt a little too much like the breath of some gargantuan monster.
He was almost starting to nod off when he spied the light.
The eerie, pale blue light.
The cold, unearthly glow instantly made him think of a ghost, and as they drew closer to the source, he saw it was a ghost - a dancing wisp of not-fire trapped in a large metal-and-glass lantern. They passed several such lights, mounted at intervals along a clearly artificial tunnel, before they entered a wide open space.
The boy could only gape in wonder as he gazed upward.
They were at the bottom of a deep shaft, fully lit by more ghostly lanterns. A single massive stalactite hung in the center, reaching all the way to the floor, where it met with a glittering pool. Surrounding this natural marvel, artificial windows, doors, and decorative carvings honeycombed the outer wall from top to bottom. It was a magnificent, if slightly surreal sight, but all the midair landings with no way of reaching them made perfect sense in the context of the most striking feature of the cavern: fairies.
The air was thick with their pale, ghostly forms. They almost seemed to glow as they floated slowly and silently about their business, and indeed some of the were glowing, sporting halos and not-flames hovering above their heads, or being followed by lazily-circling will-o'-wisps. They almost looked alike, so uniform was their stature and choice of attire, but as the boy looked closer he could make out a range of faces, builds and bearings. Some of them turned to look at the newcomers, with varying degrees of interest, but none approached or spoke.
The fairy carrying the boy made her way patiently but unerringly toward one door in particular and slipped inside. It took a moment for the boy's eyes to adjust to the slightly dimmer gloom.
It was a house. A cozy space, tall enough that he could comfortably stand upright, but far too short for a grown man. The walls curved to meet the floor and ceiling, and the marks of the tools that had hewn them from the rock were obvious, but they were cut with professional precision. Walls stood flat and vertical and met at right angles, sharp as any human dwelling.
The main room, the only one he could see, housed a great slab of a table, a perfect square of polished stone perched on four equally fine stone legs, its top inlaid with darker stone in an intricate, abstract pattern. Around the tabe stood four chairs, made by all appearances of wrought iron, and padded with decoratively embroidered upholstery. Though clearly proportioned for fairies - like the table itself - the boy fancied he knew several well-to-do humans who would have paid a pretty penny for such workmanship.
With the utmost care, the fairy deposited the boy in one of these chairs, before disappearing through one of the other doorways, still floating unhurriedly. It was quite comfortable, at least to him; he was more used to sitting on the floor, but there were no mats in this house, and he imagined that sitting on his injured leg would be a bad idea anyway.
Besides the aformentioned furniture, the room was rather spartan, leaving him with very little to look at besides the admittedly pretty tabletop. It was also quite chilly. The fairy floated in and out of the room once or twice more, and the boy heard muted sounds from whatever it was she was doing, but it was his nose, again, that told him the full story.
Whatever it was she was cooking, it smelled delicious. The boy just hoped it was also safe to eat.
He didn't have to wait long to find out. The fairy soon returned, with a steaming bowl and a pair of chopsticks, and set them both before him.
The chopsticks, the boy noticed immediately, were not made of wood. They were light and flexible, like wood, but hard and smooth to the touch. They were also adult-size, which gave his small hands some trouble. The bowl was glazed ceramic, plain but well-made. The contents... while they certainly smelled appetizing, they looked anything but. Unidentifiable gray lumps floated in something not unlike mud, and careful probing with the chopsticks revealed worm-like translucent noodles.
The fairy took the seat opposite him with a bowl of her own and began to dig in immediately. The boy watched her eat with a kind of horrified fascination, as every mouthful revealed rows of sharp, predatory teeth.
The fairy noticed his stare and paused. She tilted her head to one side slightly, and motioned toward his bowl.
The boy looked down, swallowed once to steady himself, and popped one of the lumps into his mouth.
...mushroom. Mushroom, in a thick, gravy-like soup loaded with seasonings. The other lumps turned out to be more mushroom - but the texture and flavour varied quite dramatically - some kind of chewy meat, possibly seafood, and rich, almost sweet dumplings of some sort. And the noodles, he discovered, had the oddest texture he'd ever encountered - they felt sticky and chewy at first, but then suddenly dissolved into nothing after a few bites.
It was good. Very good. So good, in fact, that despite his slow start, he actually finished before his host. She looked rather impressed at that - impressed, and a little bit proud. It was, after all, the sort of compliment any cook could appreciate. There was a hint of a smile on her lips as she carried the bowls away.
She shortly returned, and moved to lift the boy once more, but he rose awkwardly on his good leg, steadying himself against the table. She gave him a look, one not entirely approving, but made no motion to stop him. Instead she slipped under his arm and half-supported, half-guided him first to the privy - for which he was embarassed but thankful - and then to the bathroom.
Both were most agreeably civilized, and not at all what the boy had been led to expect of a fairy's home. His host helped him seat himself on the little not-wooden stool and then departed. A low stone vessel of water, a small tub, and a bar of what at looked and smelled at least approximately like soap were comfortably within arm's reach. The stone floor, though no different from anywhere else in the house, sloped to what could only be called a drainage hole. The boy idly wondered how that had been constructed - there was no obvious sign of the natural stone having been disturbed for the installation of any sort of plumbing.
Stowing his musings away for later, he awkardly stripped himself of his torn and dirtied clothes, and inspected his similarly mistreated skin. He began carefully cleaning the various cuts and abrasions, wincing all the while.
A faint scuffing sound came from behind him, and he turned - and immediately looked away again. His hostess had returned, and what's more, she was naked.
The boy felt his face heat up. Until that moment, the business of fearing for his life hadn't given his exhausted mind time to digest the fact that his savior, while not exactly human, was most definitely a girl, and a pretty one at that. He was not too young to understand the significance.
That her slender fingers ended in what could only be described as claws only made his heart pound harder.
The fairy, for her part, did not share or heed his bashfulness, and immediately set about seeing to his injuries and cleanliness, sparing him no embarassment. He took some consolation in the fact that she made no attempt tease or patronise him, nor put him in any situation she wasn't evidently comfortable with herself. If she noticed his youthful excitement - and it was hard to see how she could miss it - she made no comment on it.
After dumping a second tubful of icy water over his head, however, she did suddenly take him in her arms again, flustering him still further, if only for a moment. Then he yelped in surprise a second time as she lowered him into startlingly hot water. The bath was clearly designed for only one fairy-size occupant, but she joined him in it at once. There wasn't room for them both to sit without thoroughly entangling their legs.
It was the warmest bath the boy had ever experienced.
When it mercifully came to an end, they dried themselves - and each other - with the same delightfully fluffy towel, and the boy was presented with a clean bathrobe. It was of unfamiliar design, with a dramatically low-cut back and a capelet of sorts attached to only one shoulder, but it took him only a few seconds to divine the why and how. The fairy, for her part, donned a simple white nightgown.
The feeling of her bare, soft shoulder under his hand as she supported his stubborn one-legged 'walk' gave his body's preoccupation one final parting shot.
Their final destination for the night was a fairy-sized bed. A Western-style bed, very unlike the Japanese futons he was used to. His fascination with the thick, bouncy mattress distracted him so much that he almost didn't notice he wasn't to be its only occupant. The fairy matter-of-factly slipped under the sheets, facing him, the better not to smother him with her wings.
She closed her eyes at once, and in spite of himself the boy soon followed, lulled by her warmth and strangely comforting scent to a peaceful, dreamless sleep.
"Where the hell did you learn to drive!?" I yelp, hands fumbling for whatever they can reach and clinging on for dear life.
"Funny you should ask!" Clownpiece shouts back. She's barely audible over the roar of wind and tires as we hurtle sideways around yet another sharp turn.
Merry's uncontrollable screaming speaks for both of us right now.
"Heads down!" Marisa bellows from the back seat.
I slide down as far as I can, every bump in Clownpiece's madcap drifting nearly folding my back in half. A sound like ball bearings raining onto metal reaches my ears.
The windscreen cracks.
I choke back a scream of my own and crane my neck to peer around the chair that probably isn't offering me any protection to begin with. Merry is hunched over, clutching her hat over her face, still screaming her lungs raw. Marisa has thrown a protective wing over her. Even as I watch something strikes a spark off the pearly feathers and she winces in pain.
"Marisa! Look in the back!" Clownpiece calls over her shoulder.
Marisa waits for a gap in the shooting and lunges over the back seat.
"Sweet!" she shouts, standing up.
"Oh my god is that a -" Merry gasps.
"COVER YOUR EARS!!!" I yell.
I immediately heed my own advice, but it's not enough. The sound of the minigun firing is like a chainsaw in my ear canals. Somehow, impossibly, I can still hear Marisa cackling with murderous glee. Maybe I'm just imagining it, or maybe the sheer supernatural wrongness of her voice is bypassing my ears completely.
Suddenly the car rocks. The firing cuts out, and the still-spinning barrel bounces off the top of my seat, where my head would have been if I wasn't cowering in mortal terror. Then another crash knocks the weapon out of Marisa's grip and over the side.
For one horrible moment, the barrels are pointed right at me.
"We seem to be experiencing some turbulence," Clownpiece comments far too casually, as another blow sends her careening onto the wrong side of the road.
"I got it," Marisa replies, sticking her hand over the side of the car.
And plucking a stop sign right out of the pavement as we pass.
A lump of shattered concrete dangles above the gearshift for a moment, before Marisa slams it down on the hood of the car behind us.
A bit more concrete is missing each time.
Then she rears her whole body back between the two front seat and hurls the signpost like a javelin.
The sound of smashing glass and screeching tires follows.
"That gave 'em something to think about!" Marisa cheers.
And then, because this whole ordeal isn't crazy enough yet, an entire freaking semi-trailer crashes through the barrier ahead of us. It fishtails dangerously for a moment before straightening up. Then the back falls open like a ramp. Clownpiece guns the engine and surges up said ramp - and no further.
"Uh. Fuck," Clownpiece says, realizing her giant SUV is too wide to fit inside. "New plan! Everybody out!"
"I am not climbing over -" Clownpiece rips my seatbelt out as if it was made of paper. Suddenly I'm climbing over the hood.
Marisa tosses a still-screaming Merry at me, then jumps out after her. Clownpiece follows suit. Then Marisa plants her foot on the license plate and kicks the car free. Clownpiece plucks a handgun the size of a small cannon out of nowhere and fires.
The car explodes, taking most of the road with it and throwing me and Merry to the floor.
"Fuel tanks don't do that," I protest, in the name of physicists everywhere.
Clownpiece blows on the barrel of her gun. "Nope, but dynamite does!"
"...you mean to tell me we were riding around in an unexploded bomb, with people shooting at us!?" I screech.
Marisa and Clownpiece bump fists.
"Renko. Renko," Merry mumbles, still latched onto my shirt like a drowning woman to a lifeboat. "I can't hear anything."
"I got a potion for that!" Marisa says brightly.
After what feels like an eternity of bumpy road safety violation, the truck finally slows to a stop. Someone operates the door mechanism, and we stumble out into the fading afternoon light. A girl with short black hair and fluffy white ears, wearing dirty pink work clothes and spotless black sunglasses, is waiting at the bottom of the ramp.
"Thank you for choosing Inaba-Haul! Our express service guarantees next-day delivery, or your money back!" she sings, with a shit-eating grin on her face.
Marisa give her a high-five. Oh god. Not another one.
"I'm too old for this shit," someone behind me grumbles. I turn and spot the unexpected but welcome figure of Reimu Hakurei rounding the end of the truck, grimacing and massaging her back.
"Need to lie down for a while, granny?" Clownpiece snickers.
"Don't make me come over there," Reimu growls.
"Is it over?" Merry whimpers.
"Nuh-uh," rabbit girl says.
Merry, Reimu and I groan in unison.
"...dinner's gettin' cold," she finishes, thumbing over her shoulder.
All three of us heave a sigh of relief and stumble gratefully inside.
The boy awoke with a jolt and a yelp of surprise as something slapped him in the face. After a moment of confused fumbling, he found it to be his own clothes - clean, mended and toasty warm.
The fairy smiled at her sleepyheaded guest from the doorway, then floated serenely away.
The boy quickly changed. The warmth of the clothes helped keep the chill of the underground air at bay, at least for the time being. Carefully inspecting his bad leg, he found it to be almost entirely lacking in feeling still. It would be a while before he walked again, it seemed.
As he swung his legs, both good and bad, over the side of the bed, and pondered how he was going to proceed, he spied something leaning on the wall beside the bed. It was a cane of sorts, roughly fashioned of the same pale, bonelike substance he'd encountered twice already. It seemed tall for him at first, but as he rose and braced himself against it, he found the oddly-shaped top nestled perfectly under his shoulder.
Memory and a luminescent blush returned as he recalled that his hostess had a very good idea of his proportions - and he of hers.
With surprising ease once he got used to the odd arrangement, he made his way to the dining room, or at least the one he supposed to be it - the one with the table. He found it without difficulty, but it proved to be devoid of fairy. As if sensing his thoughts, however, she promptly appeared at one of the other doors, carrying another bowl of food.
"Good morning," they boy said automatically as he maneuvered awkardly into his chair.
The boy started. The fairy's voice was as unearthly as her appearance, an unholy union of a whisper and a moan, like the wind howling through an old, decrepit house. It was at once appropriately childlike and much too deep for her.
"You can talk," he blurted out.
The fairy gave him a Look.
"...you never talked before," he added lamely.
"I could say the same about you," she replied.
"...sorry," he mumbled.
The fairy said nothing, but smiled slightly before floating away though the door behind him. The boy meekly picked at the bowl she'd left in front of him. Breakfast was white, goopy, and nauseatingly reminiscent of snot. Mustering his courage, he raised a great glop to his mouth.
Smooth, creamy, sweet and ever-so-slightly sour. Today's lumps weren't quite fruit, but they were just as delicious, if not more. Their texture resembled crumbly cookies more than anything else, and the explosions of flavour they released made the boy think of flowers blooming.
Needless to say, the bowl was emptied as quickly as the last.
"Thanks for the food," he said when he was finished.
"You're welcome," the fairy responded. She did not look up.
While he was eating, she had gathered an unusual assortment of items: several cloths, brushes, a basin of water, a few unlabelled bottles, many unfamiliar metal tools and a bundle of what looked to be rocks. She now sat in the chair opposite him, meticulously scraping away.
"...what are you doing?" the boy asked, his curiosity inevitably getting the better of his courtesy.
By way of reply, the fairy carefully set down the stone she was holding, withdrew another from one of the two piles and held it out to him. The boy accepted it with equal care and peered at it, lifting it to better catch the dim light.
His eyes widened as he realized he was holding an uncut gemstone the size of a tangerine.
"Red corundum, better known as ruby."
The boy gulped and gingerly passed it back.
"Are they all precious stones?"
"Where did you get them?'
"In the Deep, where not even the oni dare go." She smirked. "I only died twice for this haul. It was a good run."
The boy shivered.
"What are you going to do with them?"
The fairy stared at him as if he were daft.
"Sell them, what else? They fetch a pretty penny as magical catalysts."
"...you get yourself killed for money?"
The fairy lowered the rock she was working on again, and stared into space for a moment.
"Better me than some poor apprentice."
They both fell silent for some time after that.
Once the fairy had finished - or grown bored, the boy wasn't quite sure - she gathered up her work, and took his bowl away. He began to rise as well, but had only just managed to clamber to his feet - or rather foot - by the time she returned.
"I'm going out," she told him. "Don't hurt yourself while I'm gone."
"How long will you be?" he asked.
"How long is a piece of string?" she answered, making him scowl. "I'll be back in time to feed you."
"Is there anything I can do while you're gone?"
The fairy paused for a moment. "Can you read?"
"A little," he admitted.
"I have books. They don't bite." She smirked again, at some private joke. "I'll look for something interesting for you in the Capital."
And with that, she was gone.
For his next order of business, the boy resolved to explore the rest of this strange abode. There would be no harm in looking, he told himself, and even with the awkwardness of his crutch, he felt the need to move about. And so he turned himself ponderously around, and made his way toward the kitchen.
He wasn't quite sure what he was expecting, but what he found was a compact, clean and orderly affair. The fairy did not appear to be in possession of a great amount of utensils, which did not surprise him, but they were all just so, neatly stacked on stone shelves or hung from metal hooks. A once-polished countertop showed the scores of countless strokes of the knife, but not a single speck of dust. A tub of familiar design but unfamiliar material was positioned under an ornate hand pump, still damp from recent use.
But what most dominated the room was a great beast of a stove, part stone and part wrought iron. How it was used and what it burned, the boy could not determine, but he had seen enough to suppose that wood was not a readily available commodity this far below ground. Peering into the cupboard opposite - also not wood - in search of clues, he instead found the larder, packed from floor to ceiling with a dizzying array of ingredients, none of which he recognised.
Leaving the kitchen and crossing the room - the doorway to his right, he knew, led to the privy, the washroom and the bedroom, and nowhere else - he tried the opposite passage.
There he found a study. That most definitely was a surprise. He tried to picture a fairy seated at the minature desk, dipping that fine nib pen into its inkpot as she wrote a letter by the light of the appropriately ornate lamp. And on the other side of the lamp, was that - he lurched forward and carefully lifted the lid of the little case - yes, reading glasses! The image they brought to his mind was so silly it made him laugh aloud.
Steadying himself, he turned his attention to the rest of the room. Bookshelves. A door. That drew his attention, for there were only two others in the house - one at the entrance, and one on the privy. What's more, it had a keyhole, and upon trying the knob he found it was indeed locked.
He paused, cast about the room, and approached the desk. Carefully, feeling a little self-conscious, he checked the drawers. The first thing he noted, from the moment he laid his hand on it, was that the desk was made of honest-to-goodness real wood. And fine wood it was too; like so many other things in this strange place, it would not have looked out of place in the house of a nobleman back in his village. The boy began to wonder if his rescuer wasn't indeed well-heeled herself.
The second thing he noted was that it contained writing materials and little else. There was no other place in the room that he gauged able to hide such a bundle of precious stones as he was certain the fairy had carried into it. The presence of a locked door, when even the front one did not have a key, immediately became less mysterious and more prudent. Not having designs on wealth himself - and certainly not ill-gotten from someone so kind - he considered his curiosity satisfied.
Voyage of discovery complete - and limbs tiring from exertion - he turned to the bookshelves. He was rather more literate than he had let on to the lady of the house, though it would be some years before he fully mastered the written language and its thousands of intricate characters - if indeed he ever did, for it was rare that a boy fit enough to go falling down ravines not be put to more productive exercises.
These books, however, challenged him considerably. He had a suspicion many of them were quite archaic. From the few he took down and peered into, he determined that they were also very dry. One was a treatise on geology, another, a manual of architecture. His worldview of fairies as carefree and uncivilized was rapidly crumbling into ruin.
Tucked away on a corner shelf - which required him to awkwardly seat himself on the floor to reach it - he at last found something more to his liking: a small and somewhat dated collection of fiction. He laughed again when he found a volume of "fairytales", clearly written by a human who had never met even the common fairies the boy saw every day.
Picking three, to save himself the trouble of coming back if one proved too boring, he returned to his comfortable seat at the main table.
And there he would stay, for many hours hence.
He rose a few times, to shake the stiffness from his bones or to heed the call of nature. And he paused in his reading many more, as he stumbled over a word or character he had not yet learned, and stopped to ponder its meaning. But for the most of it he sat, utterly absorbed in fascination of a tale of a distant land and its unfamiliar inhabitants. Whether the place was real or imagined he did not know, for there was nothing in it so fantastical as to be unbelievable, but the newness and the sense of exploration alone drove him to read on.
He was still engrossed, and not yet even halfway finished, when the click of the front door - quiet, yet violent against the silence - heralded the return of his hostess. In she floated, silent as ever, a large cloth bundle held against her chest.
"Welcome back," the boy said, straightening. He quickly made note of his place and closed the book, stacking it on top of the other two.
The fairy said nothing, instead squinting at the spine of the book-mound, silently judging they boy's taste in literature.
"...how did it go?" the boy asked, squirming under the silent accusations.
"I recovered your medical expenses, and then some."
The boy's eyes widened as he crashed back into reality. His mouth widened too, but no words came out.
The fairy lowered her arms and regarded the bundle they carried, before looking up at him.
The boy quickly lost count of the days he spent in the fairy's care. It wasn't that they were many - he still woke confused by his strange surroundings - but here in the silent, gloomy underground world, 'day' held very little meaning. Whatever clock by which the residents of this strange little community rose and slept, if indeed there was one, was hidden from him.
Boredom, too, played a part. His hostess was clearly no idle hand and left him often to his own devices. During those times he had naught but books for company, for she would not hear of him leaving the house until his leg was mended and he could walk unaided. Of the times when she remained, she would occasionally entertain him with the board game she had purchased (so she said) especially for his sake; but just as often she would take it upon herself to further his understanding of the written word, or fill other gaps in his learning.
She was, the boy thought to himself, altogether too motherly. He resented none of it, though; for while she would occasionally mock his ignorance, when he all-too-frequently failed to keep it in check, she never belittled the boy himself. He was a guest in her house, no more and no less; though she clearly had the wisdom and responsibility, if not the appearance, of an adult, she never once treated him as a child.
It was a new and sobering experience. It was also very effective; he desired so much to earn the respect given him that he studied harder under her than he ever had in his life.
Though it had to be said that respect was perhaps not the only thing he desired: their continued shared bathing was driving him to levels of arousal he had no idea how to deal with. He certainly enjoyed these times, and eventually even overcame his embarassment about them, but her indifference left him floundering. He understood enough to know that she could not possibly have failed to notice, and yet she showed no sign of either reciprocation or rejection.
In this matter he was most certainly a child, and he knew it.
But then one morning - if indeed it was a morning - something finally happened to take his mind off things.
The recovery of his injured leg.
"It feels normal again," he said, wiggling his toes. The sensation of numbness had vanished quite suddenly overnight.
The fairy looked at him for a moment, as she often did, then crawled to the other end of the bed.
And tickled his foot.
And tickled his other foot.
"Sounds about the same," the fairy concluded.
The boy stuck out his tongue. The fairy responded in kind.
So he grabbed at her feet and began tickling them too.
She twitched violently, drew her knees up to her chest, and retaliated with a vengance.
He lunged after her, taking the fight to her sensitive sides.
Several minutes later they tumbled out of bed to lie in a breathless, giggling heap.
"Truce?" the fairy offered.
"Truce," the boy wheezed.
"...are you going to get off me any time soon? I can't get dressed like this." She smirked. "Or do you not want me to get dressed?"
The boy realized he was straddling her, with his robe open, and rapidly turned bright red.
The fairy smirked wider, then picked him up as though he weighed nothing at all. She rocked to her feet with equal ease and set him on his own.
"So, how's your leg?"
"It's, uh -"
He tested his bad leg carefully. It felt a bit strange from not using it for so long, but supported his weight just fine.
The fairy smiled.
They dressed themselves in silence.
The fairy finished first, leaving for the kitchen while still tying her bow. The boy followed more slowly, still testing his newly-healed limb. He took a seat at the table and waited. His hostess had long since made it clear he'd only get in the way of her cooking, and given that he couldn't name a single food she made or used, he was inclined to agree.
Only once she had returned, and they both had food before them, did he speak.
"So, what now?"
The fairy carefully finished chewing and swallowing, giving him a long look.
"Now I suppose I should take you home."
The boy looked down at his bowl, and was silent for a moment.
"...it almost feels like a shame to go home. I miss it, but I'll miss you too." He looked up and smiled somewhat awkwardly. "Thank you for all your help. I really don't know how I can repay you."
"You can't," the fairy said matter-of-factly, "but you don't have to. I'll miss you too."
The boy looked downcast, and picked at his food without eating.
"...but it would be a shame for you to leave without seeing anything of the Underground," the fairy continued. "I know a few spots that should be safe enough for you to visit. What do you say?"
There was only one thing he could say.
Once breakfast was finished and the dishes done, the fairy took the boy in her arms once more and carried him out of her cliffside abode. There were fewer other fairies about than when the boy had first entered, but still a great many, most of which acknowledged their passage in some form or another.
Instead of down, however, the fairy carried her charge up, all the way to the top of the great shaft, where a second lantern-lit tunnel ended precariously at a sheer drop. There, to the boy's mild surprise, she set him down, and took his hand in her own.
"Don't let go, and make no sound."
With that rather ominous warning, she led him into the darkness.
This journey felt even more interminable than the others. The fairy sped up when the ground was even, slowed when it was not, and tugged his hand up, down or to the side to warn him of oncoming obstacles. How she was aware of them, he had no idea; he was restricted to feeling his way along and trusting in his guide. He cringed in fear with each scuff of his feet or hands against an unexpected surface, admonishment to silence fresh in his mind.
Between his heightened nerves and out-of-practice legs, the boy fancied he walked for miles. But at last the fairy slowed to a halt, and moved to float beside him, slipping her arm gently around behind him.
And then there was light.
The boy winced and shielded his eyes, momentarily blinded by even such a pale glow. Once his eyes adjusted, he saw the fairy now sported a halo-flame of ghostly light like the others he had seen. She watched him expectantly, and gestured forward. The boy looked.
What he saw took his breath away.
Tremendous shafts of crystal sprouted from the floor, walls and ceiling of the cavern. Some spanned the entire space in great, angular columns, tilted at crazy angles, while others ended in midair, titanic spears poised to impale some unwary giant. Right at his feet a glittering, glasslike bridge, wide enough to push a cart along, rose at a gentle incline across the cave.
The fairy gave his back a gentle push. He looked at her for confirmation, swallowed, and stepped out onto the crystalline causeway. It was smooth and sharp under his feet, one misstep threatening to to send him to a sliding, slicing end. He carefully picked his way along, fairy floating steadyingly at his side, until he stood suspended in the very middle of the spectacle.
Then the fairy willed her light brighter, and the entire cavern shone.
"Wooow," the boy whispered.
The fairy smiled, and brought a finger to her lips in gentle reminder. She drifted slowly backward, away from him, and he crouched instinctively, the wide natural bridge seeming to narrow with nothing to hold onto. Then she sank out of sight, leaving him momentarily alone.
She returned in short order, and presented him with a tiny, water-clear prism.
"Keep it," she whispered in his ear.
The boy gaped at her, and stowed it safely in his pocket.
After lingering a moment to etch the moment into their memories, the fairy began leading the boy back to the entrance. He was reassured by feeling of rough stone under his feet once more.
A mass of writhing tentacles lept at him from the wall. The boy scarcely had time to blink.
Suddenly the fairy was in front of him. The tentacles engulfed her, but she stood - hovered? - firm. There was movement, indistinct, and a squelching, gurgling noise, followed by a wet ripping. The boy held stock still, teetering between fatal fall and abyssal abomination.
A moment later the tentacles spasmed and went limp. They flopped lifelessly to the floor, revealing an unhurt fairy. She half-turned to see the boy, looking almost bored, and spat a bloody lump of flesh onto the ground.
"Cave squid. They hunt by sound and kill by asphyxiation."
The fairy began methodically tying the creature up with its own tentacles.
"...what are you doing?" The boy whispered.
"Taking it with us. They're good eating."
The boy was significantly more nervous on the way back.
The rest of the day was far less eventful, and passed in a blur. The fairy gave the remains of the squid over to one of her silent kin and carried the boy back to her house, remarking that it was still too early to depart for the surface. They took one last slime-removing bath together, and whiled away the hours at games and study for the final time.
But all too soon that time came to an end, and they set out once more, this time taking the lower route.
The boy by now felt very safe in the fairy's arms.
They emerged into the sunlit realm in the same place they had left, and about the same time, too; the sky was already beginning to darken in twilight. After a brief pause to gaze at the spot, the fairy floated upward, effortlessly defying the cruel grip of gravity that had brought the boy to her to begin with.
She set him on his feet at once, but stayed with him on the trek to his village, to be certain nothing else would waylay him.
"Well then. This is goodbye."
The boy gazed at the village gates in the distance, and then back at his companion with a pained look.
"Will we ever see each other again?"
"It's better if we don't."
The fairy leaned forward and kissed him on the forehead.
"Farewell, and stay out of trouble."
She turned and began to float back down the path.
The fairy paused.
"...your name. You never told me your name."
The fairy turned.
"My name is Penance."
"...I'm Jun." The boy took a slow breath. "...goodbye, Penance."
The boy watched her until she disappeared from view, then turned and ran for the gate.