Fungal Halo

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The heroine swoops in toward the site of the explosion, keeping an eye out for—ah, there she is. Her great nemesis, striding through the destruction, catches her eye at the same time and grins widely. “Ah, there you are! Fireworks always were the best way to get your attention.”

“You certainly have it, villain. What are you after this time? Or did you just want a beat down?”

The woman in black laughs. “I think you’ll see things go differently today.” From behind her back she produces a beautiful glowing stone, and the hero feels her strength drain.

“You have a weakness, my dear,” the villain sneers, striding forward. “A pretty gem with a glow that brings you to your knees.” She pulls her enemy down into a kneeling position. “Oh. Oh, this is good. Let’s see how you like being in my power.”

A firm strike and the hero is out.

She wakes up trapped in a room that bears the aesthetic of evil in every corner, tied in simple rope that ordinarily she should be able to break easily, but her attempts fail. Worse, the rope chafes in a way her normally invincible skin had never experienced. Fear grips her.

“Awake yet, my dear?” A taunting voice comes from behind.

She twists and flops to the side ungracefully to stare down the woman who had captured her. The hero’s attempted retort is muffled and unintelligible behind the ball gag rudely affixed to her mouth.

“I’m sure this is where you’d love to ask what it is I’m planning, but I must confess I have no great scheme this time.” Striding from across the room, the villain approaches the bound hero and lays her sharp nails against her neck. “Aside from hurting you.”

The sharp pinpricks of the nails against her neck send a jolt through her like nothing she’d ever felt before. Not only is she no longer invincible, but her skin feels intensely sensitive to the touch, and she flinches involuntarily.

“l could choke the life out of you right here,” the villain muses,

gripping her neck firmly. The hero’s vision darkens with the pressure before the grip suddenly relaxes. “But with that collar on, I have all the time I could want to hurt you for every time you stopped me.”

One hand holds a wickedly curved knife in front of the bound hero’s face. “I always wanted to know what it would feel like to make you bleed. Have you ever?”

The hero no longer feels very heroic. Gripped by fear, she feels like any other captive threatened at knife point.

The point of the knife slides smoothly through the costume and into flesh. It feels like an electric jolt shooting through the captive’s body, and as the knife makes its neat incision into her skin, she screams.

“Ah! What music to my ears! And I’ve hardly even begun!” The villain laughs in delight, touching two fingers to the thin dribble of blood. “More beautiful than I ever dreamed,” she whispers to herself, admiring her bloody fingertips before putting them to her mouth.

Another experimental incision on the captive’s thigh brings a white-hot flare of pain to life again, and her ragged scream reverberates through the room.

A confused look from the villain, “are you so unused to feeling real pain? I’ve cut myself worse on purpose.”

In demonstration, the villain pulls back her sleeve and makes a neat incision in parallel with an array of scars already on her arm, making no sound at all. Catching her own blood on one fingertip, she pulls the gag aside and pushes that finger into the captive’s mouth.

The metallic taste of blood is unmistakable. Too taken aback to think of biting, the moment ends before she can process the strangeness of it. “There,” the villain sounds oddly satisfied, “we’re getting to know each other so much more intimately now, aren’t we?”

The knife continues its work on her body, and each burst of pain drags a new suffering cry from her until her mind is so overwhelmed she falls into shaking, sobbing, and tragic, mindless whimpering, no longer fully aware of anything outside herself. Abruptly, the knife stops.

“Too much? Already?” The words drift to her as though from a great distance. Without warning, comforting arms surround her. “We can take a break.” Gradually, her mind and her awareness return to her until she is again capable of finding her enemy’s comforting gesture disturbing.

As soon as she stops crying and opens her eyes, her captor reaches for the knife again and resumes her work, sending the captive into screaming fits of agony again. When she is again overwhelmed, the comfort returns. The cycle continues more times than she can count.

When the captive again, eventually, returns to awareness, she finds her injuries well dressed, herself in a tidy cell with a small bed, dressed in nothing more than the collar bearing the dreadful glowing stone. A simple meal awaits on the lone table in the room.

No way out. No way to message the outside world. No visits from her captor. A lonely monotony descends upon her for days, until one day she wakes up again in the same room as before, her captor smiling wickedly at her freshly healed captive. The cycle begins again.

She learns to hate the isolation more than the pain. The torture is almost a conversation, and animal social instincts cling to the pure joy in her captor’s eyes whenever pain wracks her body. As a hero she always did feel good about making people smile.

So the first time her captor drags her to the bedroom after a day of blood and ragged screaming, what remains of her mind feels giddy excitement. Her captor grabs her in ways that leave bruises, she uses her body selfishly in ways that aggravate the wounds. The captive loves it.

Afterward the villain looks at her with what might be affection and confides, “hurting you has brought me more joy than anything else in my rotten life.” She sighs and strokes the captive’s cheek. “I’ll never let you go, you know that?”

The former hero smiles and nods.

Her cell is traded for a place of honor in her mistress’s bedroom. Her body now enjoys the privilege of wearing beautiful dresses to compliment and show off the delicate and growing web of scars across her skin. She finds new ways to experience pain. She is home.

And yet this life comes to an abrupt end one day. A wall explodes inward in a shower of debris as the man with more muscles than God bursts in. The former hero’s eyes go wide in recognition of someone from her past life, and he triumphantly declares, “I found her! She’s alive!”

He crosses the distance between them in a handful of great strides, grips her collar’s precious gem, and shatters it in his huge fist before wrapping an arm around her and bounding away to safety. She recognizes the others with him, all scouring the home for her mistress.

Tears well up in the former captive’s eyes as she feels her old strength return. She watches the scars on her arms fading rapidly thanks to her incredible natural healing powers. It’s over. Someone is trying to speak to her, but she just crumples to the ground and starts crying.

They keep her for observation and assessment, to make sure she is well before releasing her back to the apartment she once lived in. Her costumes wait for her in the closet as though she never left. Somehow, they still fit. She soars through the skies again like herself.

A visit to the place she had been held captive reveals little. Even her enhanced vision cannot detect anything remaining of the crushed gem that had changed her life. The clean up had been thorough. It’s time to move on.

She returns to her old routine, the one where she can barely feel a shower of bullets from a man with guns for eyes—the one where people look at her in awe, reverence, and sometimes fear. A very different cycle of violence than the one she had so recently experienced.

In a daily heroic routine, the average explosion represents a call to action, but the location of this one makes the hero’s heart quicken its pace. It’s the same place as the “fireworks” that had lured her to the woman she once called nemesis. Without a second thought, she flies.

She lands in front of the woman who waits for her as she did before, striding with confidence through the destruction. The other woman’s expression is so very different than it was that day, but they know each other so much more intimately now, don’t they?

The woman in black produces a box from behind her. Opening it reveals a ring studded with tiny, glowing gems, the biggest one front and center, all clearly cut from the shards of a larger stone. The woman who is not a hero any more feels vulnerable again, and the tears return.