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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.