Fungal Halo

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A Friendly Face

The dryad visits just once per cycle of the moon, but you always look forward to its arrival. Sometimes it brings gifts from the forest, sometimes gifts from the other towns it visits, sometimes just the gift of its company, but it is your friend, and you always greet it happily.

You’ve come to understand how the masks it wears signal what to expect when you talk. Each is painstakingly shaped and painted with beautiful designs and colors, and each projects its own personality which shows in how your friend behaves whole wearing it.

The dryad once told you it chooses what mask to wear each visit based on mood and what whims it wants to indulge. It’s not much fun when it arrives wearing one of the sadder ones, but you care about your friend and offer your support and company even on those visits.

This time, when it arrives, it arrives wearing a mask you associate with quiet, comfortable behavior. Painted leaves cover the surface in all the colors of fall, with dark eyes just barely peeking through and thin decorative spiderweb lines traced in silver across it.

This time you want to make a request of it, but you wait first. You invite it inside and chat over tea. You get comfortable together on your padded seating and stroke its twisted limbs and lovely mask. You wait until it relaxes next to you and then at last you ask.

“What do you really look like under your masks?”

Your friend deflects the question, spouting philosophy about how, if all it shows is a mask, the mask is how it looks.

You shake your head. You touch a limb tenderly, look into its eyes, and say, “I want to see the real you.”

The dryad pauses, clearly nervous about the request. After a moment it insists that there is nothing to see, and aren’t the masks beautiful?

“They are, but they aren’t the real you. Please? Won’t you show me what lies under all the false faces you’ve shown me?”

“Whatever is under there, I’m sure I’ll find it more beautiful than any mask,” you insist.

You grasp the edge of the mask. Your friend, realizing too late what you intend, tries to push away, but you tug the mask off.

Underneath there is…nothing. Absolutely nothing.

Your friend falls silent the instant the mask leaves its face. You stare, uncertain what to say. Without a word, the dryad stands and—more stiff and robotically than usual—walks out the door, leaving you holding the mask.

You hold onto that mask, hoping to return it some day, but it is over a year before the dryad makes another appearance wearing a mask you recognize as among its more guarded. You offer your apologies, your tea, and your company, and it accepts, with some emotional distance.

When it enters your home you offer its old mask back, but it declines. That aspect of it, your friend explains, is no longer something it can channel any more. Its magic is gone. Your friend remains polite, but you fear it will be a very long time before it trusts again.