The Hero's Journey at Lightspeed
Burke Hoodwin finds himself kidnapped, subjected to magic experimentation, and released back into the woods without any explanation.
“Elmer, come on. You know I’ve got placement exams tomorrow.” And yet Burke still does nothing to resist the warm, loving hand pulling him into the woods to Trysts’ Hollow—because he definitely needs this. Elmer knows it and he knows it. At this point the resistance is purely performative.
“Relax! Twenty minutes, we’ll be done before you know it.”
Burke snickers immediately. “Weird estimate of your skills, but okay.”
“Ah—Burke!” Burke grins. He loves when Elmer gets flustered like this.
Elmer spins and grabs both Burke’s hands, pulling him into the clearing. The harsh sunset light is barely filtered by the foliage above—and yet Burke instead finds himself blinded by Elmer’s bright eyes, his radiant smile. He’s surprised there isn’t a glare off his glasses.
The kiss is sudden, a hungry, living thing that elicits a quiet moan from Burke. He pulls Elmer close to him, the two of them awkwardly stumbling back until Elmer’s back hits a tree trunk. Burke loses track of time quickly after that.
“Wait, wait wait,” Elmer suddenly gasps, hands on Burke’s chest, pushing away. Did Burke do something wrong? I hope not.
“What’s wrong?” he asks, very aware of how embarrassingly wary he sounds.
Elmer is silent for a second. Just staring.
“I love you, you know that?”
Oh. Is that it? Relief floods over him and Burke rolls his eyes. “Yeah, I know, ‘Mer. We say it every day.”
“No, no, I know we do. And I know we love each other. But I really want you to know how special you are to me. You’re…you’re important, you know? You’re my rock, Burke Terrence Hoodwin. I really, really love you.”
“Oh.” Burke can’t help but feel a little overwhelmed by this sudden adoration—it’s about ten miles outside of his comfort zone. But Elmer means the world to him too, and if expressing it back will make Elmer happy, then he’ll do it. “I-I love you too,” he mumbles, the words heavier than usual. His face feels distractingly hot.
Elmer reaches up a hand to Burke’s cheek. His smile is still so radiant, Burke is absolutely transfixed. “I know. And I hope that someday you can forgive me.”
“Huh?” Burke’s brow furrows at the abrupt subject change. “What do you—“
Something hard slams into his head, knocking him away from Elmer’s hand. His skull crashes against the nearby tree and all he hears is a sickening CRUNCH and all he feels is a horribly sharp pain in his eye before he loses consciousness.
Burke groans, even that small action taking all the effort he can muster. His limbs burn. Everything burns.
He tries to understand what happened, but everything around him is a blur. His mind won't make any connections that he wants it to.
For the first time since waking, his eyes focus on something in front of him. His glasses. They're still on his face, but one of the lenses is cracked, and it's sending odd streaks across his vision, black and white and red and a weird pink that interrupts everything he sees. His eye hurts. It hurts a lot, burns. That side of his head is ringing with pain. He can't tell why. The world is sideways—he's on his side. Lying down on the ground, why is he on the ground?
He tries to reach for his glasses, but his hands won't move. They're tied behind his back, and he can't move them at all. He can't move. His legs are tied too, he can't move. That should make him panic more, he thinks, but his mind is too muddled to make sense of anything.
Magic. Maybe he can use magic. He tries to concentrate on magic as best as he can, but he can barely even concentrate as it is. The burning is strong, reaching through every part of his body and keeping him firmly in place. And the ringing in his head is even stronger. He can't think over it.
Something moves in front of him, just for a moment, a flash of black that lingers too long to be just a streak. Then it's gone.
Burke's heart starts to pump a little faster. He wants to move, but he still can't. Why can't he move?
The streak moves past him again. The ringing gets louder.
Time passes. He doesn't know how much. All the sound around him keeps shifting, in and out of clarity to the rhythm of the pain. The burning slowly gets worse, but Burke feels too weak to do anything and he still can't move. It just hurts. It hurts so bad.
Where is Elmer? Weren’t they in the same place?
Where did he go?
Something dark fills his vision. He doesn't know what it is. It's too dark. Everything is black and white and pink.
You're awake. I'd hoped the sedatives would last longer, but it appears that the process is burning through them too fast. Must’ve been the portal travel—have to make a note of that.
The voice is soft. Sedatives. Is that why he can't think?
Try not to move too much. It will only make it worse.
Something presses hard and sharp on his shoulder. He can't tell what it is. He can't really feel anything but pain.
...Burke, I'm so sorry. I know this hurts, but please, just bear with it for a while longer.
A woman's voice. Maybe.
He feels something strange pass through his system, slow at first, then sharp and invasive. It's a horrible feeling. It hurts, but differently. It feels more gut-wrenching. It feels like fear. Like solid fear.
Burke. The reconstruction process needs to succeed, no matter what. You will make it. I know you will. You have to, you understand me?
The feeling works its way through his body at a violent speed, burning with a heat that he hadn't thought possible. The pain quadruples instantaneously and Burke screams, but he can't move, can't do anything to stop it. He's scared. He doesn't want to be here. He doesn't know what's happening.
The streak transforms in front of his very eyes, until suddenly there's a woman in a dark cloak leaning down in front of him. Her features are distorted in his vision, interwoven with the streaks over his eyes, and her mouth moves to speak to him, but everything is muffled.
Burke, you are going to be a hero. Do you understand me? She reaches out a hand and gently caresses his cheek, her touch burning. This is a necessary sacrifice, Burke. You will see this world as it is meant to be seen, and then you will save it. I promise.
The streaks of darkness grow in his vision—only he can’t just see them. He can feel them. He feels the burn throughout his body as this darkness takes him apart, piece by piece, and replaces it with something new. He feels it travel down his throat, into his lungs, his organs, his heart, choking him from the inside.
I am truly sorry, Burke. It will all be worth it someday.
His entire field of view disappears under the blackness consuming him, the woman’s silhouette the last thing he sees before he runs out of air.
Burke jolts awake to find himself alone.
He gasps, pain lancing through every part of his body. That one gasp isn’t enough air, though, and he finds himself gasping again, and again, but it’s not enough air, and it dawns on him he’s probably hyperventilating.
Burke’s thoughts land quickly on his mother, on watching her go through psychology training and therapy techniques with Orit, focusing on calming the patients down. Breathing too quickly means you don’t get enough air to run your body right, she’d said once, matter-of-factly. You have to calm your brain down a little and let your body do the rest.
He shudders with another violent breath, and forces himself to listen to his mother’s words in his head. Slow down. Calm yourself. Everything will be okay.
His breathing settles a little. Not enough, not nearly enough. His heart races as he scrambles upright, hands tearing against the bark of the tree beside him in his panic. The sky above is dark, the twin moons twinkling overhead, thin wispy clouds cutting matching streaks across the—
Burke screams in pain as his head fills with that horrible ringing again, the world around him shifting, changing, until all he can see is black and white and pink, so much of all of them.
A wisp of black smoke floats past him, and it takes a moment for him to realize where it’s coming from.
“…No,” he mutters, voice all wrong and echoey. He shakes his hand violently, hoping the smoke will go away, but it remains, creeping down the length of his arm. “No, no nonono….”
He sprints to the nearby pond in a panic, trying his best to ignore the fact that his body is more floating than running at this point. It doesn’t work. He looks over his own shoulder and sees a trail of quickly disappearing black goop linger on the ground with every pseudo-step he takes.
Fireflies and well maintained torches usually keep the pond lit, but as Burke whooshes by, the darkness following him seems to swallow every light, until all that’s left is moonlight glittering on the still water’s surface.
He stops at the edge of the pond and wastes no time in looking down.
Staring back at him is a monster. A pure black creature draped in darkness that seems to suck light in, hands covered in comically old-fashioned white gloves that look like they’ve never once been touched by dirt, and jagged white markings denoting the eyes and mouth around where his face should be. Over the eye that hurts, the white streak is tinged a soft pink, crooked and irregular. His legs are gone, replaced instead by a wispy curl of this dark matter around him.
Burke tentatively reaches a hand up to his face, and the creature’s hand moves too, perfect glove trailing the line where his left eye should be. He can still feel his heart pumping way faster than it should, and yet, also somehow knows that he doesn’t have a heart in this form. His head is still ringing and pounding.
A koi fish bursts through the surface of the pond and swims away, scattering Burke’s reflection. The sudden interruption elicits another scream, and he falls backwards, this time on his very corporeal tailbone.
He stumbles back upright, feeling the ringing subside, and checks himself over in the reflection. “What—w-what happened to me?” he mumbles, feeling his voice—his voice, not the strange distorted one—waver.
His left eye is scarred shut, blood leaking from the wound as if it were tears. Other than dirt and the fact that his glasses are missing, he looks normal. He can actually see better than he could with his glasses, and that terrifies him to no end.
This isn’t right. This shouldn’t be happening to him.
As his breathing speeds up again, he hears the ringing in his head grow louder, and immediately thinks back to his mom and her techniques. He tries not to think about his exams, which are supposed to be tomorrow, and how absolutely impossible it will be to get placed well if he can barely keep himself from actually disintegrating on the spot.
Oh Pantheons. His mom. His parents. His—his sister. They can’t know. Orit has been a terrible little narc lately, and now she’s a narc for the queen of Pelyle. Nobody can know about what’s going on.
He tries to remember anything about what happened to him besides the pain and ringing and burning and the woman’s voice, but comes up short. It’s all a blank. All he remembers is whatever happened to him with that witch, and—
Elmer, who convinced him to go to the woods. Elmer, whose smile distracted him long enough for him to be ambushed. Elmer, who asked for forgiveness right before Burke was attacked.
Elmer, who isn’t by his side.
Dread settles heavy in his stomach, slowly pushing the fear aside. Elmer put him in this position. Elmer must have betrayed him to that witch. He was the only other person there with Burke.
He needs to know.
Burke storms back towards town, the ringing a dull background noise. His feet don’t touch the ground.
Elmer is startled by a forceful knock on the door. “Ah! Coming!”
He rolls up the maps of the forest surrounding Torrena and fixes his hair quick, coming to the door. It must be the hospital security, here to ask about Burke’s disappearance again. He’s told them everything already, so maybe they have news?
“Hi, officer, what seems to…to…” Elmer gapes blankly at the man standing in the doorway. “Burke?!”
Burke looks horrible. His glasses are missing, his left eye is bleeding profusely, and his clothing is covered in dirt. But he’s alive, and that’s the best news Elmer has heard all week.
“Oh, Pantheons, Burke,” Elmer mumbles softly, much in the way he talks to his cat when it’s gotten itself into a horrible situation. “You look horrible, where have you been?”
Elmer reaches out a hand to caress Burke’s cheek, but before he can even touch Burke, the man jolts away as if his fingertips had been electrified. Elmer tentatively pulls his hand back.
Burke closes his eyes, head turned down. He breathes slowly, in, out, a few times, before he looks back at Elmer. Elmer recoils at the expression in his eyes—because that’s not his Burke. There’s a coldness in them that makes Elmer lower his hand.
“Why did you leave me out there?” Burke mumbles.
Elmer blinks a few times in confusion. “I…huh?”
“In the Hollow,” Burke grinds out. Elmer notices the man’s fists clenching at his side. “I need to know. Why did you leave me there?”
“I-I don’t know what you—“
“Bullshit,” he spits, and the vitriol has Elmer take a step back into his house as Burke presses forward.
“Burke, hold on, just tell me where you were, please—“
“You know exactly where I was! You’re the one who—that w-witch—” Pain flashes across Burke’s face and he stumbles away for a moment, clearly trying to control his breathing.
“Witch? What witch?”
Burke fixes his glare on Elmer once again. “Don’t play dumb. You were there. You tricked me, it’s your fault that I was there.”
“Burke, I swear to you, I have no idea what you’re talking about.” Elmer tries to keep his voice as level as possible—it’s pretty clear that Burke is right on the precipice of a breakdown, and he wants to avoid letting it get out of hand. “Do you know how long you’ve been missing?”
Burke eyes him warily. “Barely a day.”
“I—Burke, you’ve been missing for almost a week now. We’ve been looking for you every day.”
Elmer waits patiently for the words to sink in. When it does, Burke’s arms go slack, his eyes wide. He says exactly what Elmer expects.
“I missed my exams.” His voice is a mumble as he says it.
“I’m sorry.” Elmer nods slowly. “I know how important those were to you.”
That’s the wrong thing to say, as Burke’s stare goes right back to being cold and unyielding. He steps forward again and Elmer retreats further into the kitchen, his back thudding up against the counter.
“No, Elmer, you don’t. You have no idea what it’s like to live in a prodigy sibling’s shadow for a century, always deemed a failure by everyone and everything around you. You have no idea how desperate I was for a good placement—I needed it. It was my future. And—and you took that future away from me.”
Elmer lets out a single broken sob. He’s been worried sick since Burke didn’t show up for their exams, and now that he has Burke back, Burke isn’t even Burke anymore. He’s someone else. Hateful, refusing to listen.
“Burke, please. I didn’t do anything. I would never get in the way of your placement, you know that!”
“I thought I knew a lot of things.”
There’s a trick of the light for a moment, as Burke’s hand seems to flicker. Then it’s back to normal.
“Burke, please,” Elmer whispers, reaching out again, and Burke jolts away once more, face downcast.
“I knew you’d always be by my side. I knew you loved me, that you would never hurt me. I knew—I thought I could trust you.”
“I don’t know why you did it, but I don’t care. We’re through.”
The words cut Elmer like a dagger shoved straight through his sternum. Burke doesn’t want to be around him anymore. Burke, the love of his life. The snarky yet deeply kind man he’s been in love with for decades can barely stomach to look at him.
Burke starts to turn, and Elmer is suddenly overtaken by panic. He can’t leave. He can’t just end it, out of nowhere. Elmer dives forward and grabs onto Burke’s arm, a million words on the tip of his tongue, a hundred love songs playing in his mind—a thousand ways to beg him, don’t go, please, don’t leave me, I love you.
Elmer settles for the one he always says, whenever he needs Burke to know just how loved he is. “Please. You’re my rock.”
Burke rips his hand from Elmer’s grip and punches Elmer squarely in the face. Stunned, Elmer can only topple back to the floor as Burke pins him down by the throat and applies pressure. Elmer gasps, partially for air, partially in horror at Burke’s expression. He doesn’t recognize a single thing about Burke in those hate-filled, boiling eyes, brimming with tears and betrayal.
“You did this to me,” Burke half-whispers, half-sobs. “You. You did this.”
Elmer paws weakly at Burke’s grip, and his hands go through Burke’s wrists as if trying to grab smoke. Must…be another trick…a trick of the light…
Elmer is barely conscious when Burke is dragged off of him—the guards from the hospital, they must have been alerted by the neighbors. Burke’s parents are there, trying desperately to calm Burke, but the man won’t look away from Elmer, his face a visage of rage and heartbreak.
“Breathe, Elmer,” someone says—Orit. She came too. She talks Elmer through getting his breathing back to normal, though even his hypoxic brain can tell she’s rattled by Burke’s behavior.
Burke falls silent suddenly, his mother pulling back whatever needle she’d injected him with. The guards no longer have to struggle to hold him back from Elmer. His father directs the guards to help him bring Burke home—because he’s home now, he’s back.
Orit looks back to her departing family and then quickly to Elmer. “I’ll let you know how he’s doing in the morning.” She doesn’t wait for an answer before dashing after them.
Kneeling alone on the floor of his house and gasping for breath, Elmer wonders what he did wrong.