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canisaries

you should've known the price of evil
Location
Stovokor
Pronouns
she/her
Partners
  1. custom/inkay-shirlee
  2. custom/houndoom-elliot
  3. custom/yamask-joanna
Hey all! This was my entry for the Thousand Roads 2022 Oneshot Contest, Mischief and Malice, where the theme was "Villain POV". To my great delight, I ended up in third place, making this the first TR contest that I've officially placed in! Keeping in mind how many talented authors were taking part, I know how much that means. Big thanks to all the people who provided beta feedback in the Discord or otherwise.

I don't really expect to be making big edits to this since I'm both pretty satisfied with how it turned out and kind of done with writing it, but feedback is, of course, always strongly welcome. However, in the case that the exact version I submitted needs to be checked out for some reason, you can find it here. As for this post, it's nearly identical to the submission at the time of posting this with only some typos fixed.

As for the content, the story contains the following: trauma, death, murder, grief, domestic abuse, misogyny, strong language. The rating is somewhere between teen and mature.

With that all out of the way, enjoy! I did enjoy writing it, and I feel like I learned a lot.

---

INTO LIGHT

Synopsis:
One fateful day in Ilex Forest, Ken’s wife was taken from him by ghost-type pokémon. Five years later, a troupe of misdreavus arrives to the same woods, and the local townspeople seem to welcome them with open arms. Ken, on the other hand, won’t rest until they’re gone.

Genre:
Horror, Drama, Tragedy

Status:
Complete oneshot.
Submitted to contest privately on 1 July 2022.
First uploaded publicly on 11 Sep 2022.

Length:
10 000~ words

---​

“Looks steep,” huffed Vera, stopping to catch her breath.

Ken nodded. He could feel a bead of sweat slide down his forehead. “Yeah.”

The mossy forest floor rose and fell in waves around them, the largest hill straight ahead. A narrow path of dirt and dead needles slithered up the slope, tree roots peeking out of the earth each few steps.

Vera turned to Ken. A spot of sunlight illuminated her face, setting alight her golden hair in a brilliant glow. Her face was flushed from all the walking, but her blue eyes sparkled with determination.

“Bet the view’s gonna make up for it,” she said, smiling. Ken smiled back.

They began their climb. It was by no means the first hill they’d trekked, but that didn’t make it any less steep. The constant burn in their legs reminded them that they weren’t just walking at an angle - they were dragging their bodies higher and higher, and more energy was spent accordingly.

Still, Ken felt fantastic. The air was fresh, cool and rich with the smells of pine, moss and dirt. Chirps and chatters of pidgey and starly chimed in the treetops with the occasional rasp of a murkrow cutting in. The branches of the surrounding spruces swayed in the gentle wind, their tips bright green with new growth of the summer.

None of it, though, made him anywhere near as happy as having Vera there. His eyes were firmly on the path to make sure he didn’t trip, but he could be sure Vera was near as long as he heard that heavy breathing up ahead. He also knew that, at any moment, he might hear her voice, calling him to see another plant or insect she’d recognized. Ken wasn’t passionate about the subjects himself, but he loved to see how excited they made her. He loved to hear her trilling 'r' and the rest of her Zemlyan accent. He loved her. It simply felt good to be with her again after all these years.

After all these…

Ken froze.

Vera had died five years ago.

And she died on --

Ken looked up. They had reached the top. The top of the cliff. She stood a few meters away, near the edge, facing him, waving, smiling.

Ghostly arms rose up behind her, black as night. They grabbed her and yanked her off the edge.

“Vera!” Ken roared as her scream drilled into his ears. That scream. That scream. He ran towards the edge to see what he already knew would be terrible --

His bed.

His bed, his blanket, his room.

Something shuffled beneath his bed. Chip scrambled into view, jumped on the bed, trilled with worry. Before Ken could tell him it was alright, the umbreon hastily scooted up close and lay down against Ken’s bare body. His fur was warm, but his frantic motions brought a chill down Ken’s spine.

Ken raised a hand to stroke the umbreon. “Hey, hey, hey, it’s okay,” he spoke softly, and he felt the mon calm down under his touch. “I just… had a bad dream.”

The images came back, and he froze. He remembered the scream. The scream.

Chip trilled. Ken looked back to him. His lavender eyes, his slit pupils. His wet little nose and his whiskers.

Yes, Ken was here now. And Chip was here, too. He was alright. He’d been alright for years. Life went on. He couldn’t dwell on it. He should just try to live his life as best as he…

A ray of light broke through the gray clouds of his mind. Right!

“Chip!” Ken called, and the umbreon sat up, ears perked. “You know what day it is?”

Chip’s eyes widened. His tail began to wag.

“That’s right,” Ken said, grinning. “Fishing day.”

Chip leapt up on all fours, making the bed frame squeak, and jumped off the bed to zoom around the room. Occasionally, he stopped to look back at Ken, who’d begun getting out of bed, but the mon’s excitement was just too great for him to stay put for long.

Ken found his face stuck in a smile, and the tension in his shoulders eased. Thoughts about the coming day began to replace those of the nightmare. Yes, he thought, this will still be a good day.

From there, their morning continued the way they usually did on weekends. Ken used the bathroom, brushed his teeth and shaved before settling down before his home shrine with Chip sitting at his side. He placed a handful of herbs in a small porcelain bowl and set them alight with a match. While they burned, he gave his thanks to Celebi and asked for his blessing, and once they’d burned out, he discarded the ashes. The ritual was complete, and Chip could move again to the umbreon’s great relief. Knowing how hard it must have been to stay put for so long, Ken gave Chip a good scratching as reward. Chip accepted it with great pleasure.

They moved on to the kitchen, where Ken put the coffee on. He emptied a can of wet eevee food into Chip's food bowl and served it to the mon while exchanging the old water for new. For himself, he made some toast, and after the coffee had brewed, he brought his breakfast with him to the living room. He set the plate and cup on the table, sat down on the couch and turned on the television. The local news had just started.

He raised his cup, about to take the first sip, when the first segment began.

"A troupe of misdreavus has taken residence at a western part of the Ilex area."

Ken froze.

He set down his coffee quickly, fearing he'd spill it if he held onto it for much longer.

"Earlier this morning, a mismagius identifying himself as Ribbontail visited Azalea Town Hall to inform town officials about his troupe arriving at Ilex Forest. This story was soon confirmed by authorities."

The reporter, a young woman, spoke these words as if nothing was wrong. As if this was a curiosity at best.

A black form appeared at the periphery of Ken’s vision. He looked over to see Chip, ears perked and eyes fixed on Ken, as if the mon had sensed the human's distress somehow.

”Since then, we’ve also had the chance to personally interview Ribbontail. Let’s see the recording.”

The broadcast cut from the studio to a forestside scene. On the left side of the shot stood a young male reporter holding a microphone. On the right side was the wraith.

Chip hissed. Ken looked over to see the umbreon’s back arched and pupils constricted. The hairs on his scruff stuck up like needles.

Chip knew the correct response to a ghost. He’d grown in the wilderness, and he knew what the wraiths were truly like. The wraiths limited their masquerade to humans and the urban mon alongside them - those that could be convinced by their lies and manipulation. Like that reporter. Or the previous reporter. Or the entire news crew. And Town Hall. And the Johtoan government. Really, there were days when it seemed the entire world had been tricked save for Ken and Chip. Today was on its way to becoming one.

“So, Ribbontail,” started the reporter, “what brings you and your troupe here to Ilex?”

Ken studied the wraith more closely. True to his name, three long ribbons extended like tails from the hem of the wraith’s coat, flowing and billowing at a rhythm all their own, far slower than any natural wind would cause. They must have been freezing cold to the touch, life-draining, and the wraith could have wrapped them around the reporter at any point. Ken knew that couldn’t have happened since the clip was prerecorded, but part of him stayed on edge regardless. Like seeing someone walk across a tightrope.

Once the reporter offered Ribbontail the microphone, the wraith began to speak. “Our old home became unsuitable for us,” he said. He spoke slowly in an eerie, breathy voice. ”Too many buildings, too many humans. This place, Ilex… the woods are vast and peaceful. This is like our old home used to be.”

Ken believed that something had caused them to have to leave their former habitat, but he doubted this was the whole story. Most likely, enough humans had grown wise to their tricks and driven them out. They’d done the right thing.

The reporter nodded, ignorant to it all. “Is there anything you’d like to say to the local townspeople regarding your troupe?”

”Yes,”
said Ribbontail, leaning closer into the microphone. “I know there are many people who fear us ghosts, but we bring you no harm. We do not want to hurt you - we do not even drain life from you humans, only from wildlife and the vegetation around us. We only wish to live in peace. If you encounter any of us on your travels, please let us be. That is all we want.”

“Bullshit,” Ken grumbled. Chip backed him up with a growl.

The reporter nodded. “Alright, well, thanks for the interview. I hope you find a good home here in Azalea.”

“Thank you.”


The clip ended, and with it, the segment. The next topic seemed to be something about schools needing funding. It didn’t matter. Ken grabbed the remote and shut off the TV.

A pack of wraiths. Right in his backyard.

Just a day or two ago this place was safe, and now it wasn’t. People could go hiking. Children could go play outside. There were some ghosts, sure, but not a troupe. Not a whole goddamn troupe.

He had to fix this.

He looked to Chip. The umbreon stared back, his previous excitement replaced by solemnity.

“I’m afraid we can’t go fishing today,” said Ken. “We need to go hunting.”

---

Knowing now that there were wraiths about, Ken made sure all the talismans in his house were present. To his relief, each wooden slip was exactly where he’d placed them, and the writing on them showed no signs of fading. He briefly wondered if he should get more, but decided against it, remembering how the shrinekeepers already considered him paranoid and a little greedy for buying so many. The last thing he wanted was to be denied permission to buy them completely.

Next, he fetched his high-intensity personal amulet, stored in his basement as it was not healthy to stay exposed to an aura dampening field for extended periods of time. That was, at least, what Vera had told him - personally, he understood it more as treating something very powerful with caution and respect.

Lastly, he sought out his notebook of exorcisms and filled up a burlap pouch with dried pecha leaves. The notebook was the most worn piece of his equipment, but it hardly mattered so long as words were still legible, if he even needed to read them. The first chant written down had worked for every case, simply requiring more repetitions for some than others, and he knew it like the back of his hand. Still, he always read it. When it came to wraiths, it always paid to be careful.

Alright. He had everything he needed now. He walked over to Chip. The umbreon was lying on his bed in the living room, eyes closed in concentration as he gathered his powers. As soon as Ken spoke his name, however, the mon got up to his feet as if he’d been alert the entire time.

“Let’s go,” said Ken, and the two exited the house.

According to the news report, the troupe had taken residence in the western part of the Ilex area. As Ken’s usual walk took him near that place, he followed the familiar route until they reached the turning point.

Instead of continuing on right away, Ken took a moment to himself. The last time he’d walked past this point, he’d had Vera by his side. She hadn’t been with him on his way home.

But he couldn’t let that stop him. No one else was going to do anything about these wraiths. And, really, it was only fitting he’d come here to slay wraiths. Wraiths had been the ones to take Vera away. In a way, he’d be avenging her.

A trill from Chip drew Ken's attention back to the present. "Yeah," Ken said. "Try a scan."

The umbreon closed his eyes. His pale rings began glowing, albeit very faintly, barely perceptible in the daylight. A tense moment later, he opened his eyes again and looked back to Ken.

"Nothing yet," said Ken, voicing Chip's thoughts. "Let's keep going, then."

Chip complied with a chirp, and the two continued deeper into the northwest. Every few minutes, they stopped again for another scan, but Chip didn't seem to be picking up anything.

A little while after their latest scan, though, something caught Ken's eye - a patch of gray amid the lush green. He sprinted over to inspect it, Chip at his heel, and arrived in front of a dried, dead shrub surrounded by several others of its kind that were in perfect health. Disease or damage, thought Ken, or…

"Chip, scan."

Chip closed his eyes, his rings lighting up. A second later, his ears shot up, and he turned towards the right.

Ken nodded, determined. There was a wraith out there.

"Chip," he called, getting the umbreon's attention. "Calm mind."

Chip trilled in acknowledgement and closed his eyes again. This time, the glow in his rings was brighter. There was nothing else different that Ken could perceive, not without an aura sensor or someone aura sensitive telling him, but the former was expensive and the latter wasn’t something you could just have around. The fact that Ken could even have Chip calm his aura on command in the first place was owed entirely to a tutor service.

Now that Chip's aura was much less likely to scare away the wraith, they began to follow its trail, Chip performing shorter-range scans more frequently as they advanced. More than once, Ken found his hand straying to his chest, feeling for the amulet underneath his clothes even though he already knew it was there. His aura was hidden, and more importantly, he was shielded from possession.

When Chip began to slow down, Ken knew they were near. A dozen steps later - for Ken, many more for Chip - the umbreon stopped completely and looked back at his human. Ken nodded and crouched down. This is where he would wait. As Chip continued onward, slipping into the vegetation, Ken took off his backpack to dig out his notebook and pouch of pecha leaves. He opened the notebook in advance and tucked it under his armpit. He prodded at his chest one last time to make sure his amulet was there.

Then, he waited.

Some meters ahead, hidden by the bushes, he heard Chip trill. The tone was inquisitive, fitting for the part he was playing - a curious, naive tamed mon stumbling upon a wraith on its carefree walk through the woods. A mon that could be tricked into thinking the wraith was friendly. A mon that the wraith could subtly drain life from as they spent time together. A mon that wouldn’t know its life force was being stolen, its health weakened, its lifespan shortened. And if it ever found out, it would already be too late.

Another voice responded - a hollow, fluttering cry. Yes, the wraith was nibbling at the bait. Only Chip would know when it bit down, and when that happened…

A howl-bark split the air. Ken leapt into a sprint, forcing his way through the bushes like a tauros. As he reached Chip, he saw exactly what he expected - a misdreavus, eyes wide and tendrils frozen in shock.

Then, in an instant, it zipped away like a startled fish.

But it bounced back.

It zipped again, and it bounced right back.

It had been trapped.

As satisfying as it was to see a little demon face its comeuppance, Ken knew his time to act was limited. He quickly opened his burlap pouch and began to scatter the dried pecha leaves in a circle around the wraith as it kept trying and failing to escape. Ken saw the yellow glow in Chip’s eyes brighten - the umbreon was strengthening his grip.

Right as Ken had completed the circle, a horrible, ear-piercing screech erupted from the wraith. Ken swore through his teeth, but had no intention of stopping. If anything, this motivated him to get through the exorcism faster.

He drew the notebook out from under his arm, but before he could begin reading out the chant, he needed to focus. He had to keep the image of the wraith in his mind or the words would be targetless. For this, he faced the struggling misdreavus and took in its image as well as he could with it bouncing around.

Its dark teal cloth-like skin, thin and tattered at the edges. The strips of that fake cloth, tendrils, flailing behind it like an head of unkempt hair. The red orbs encircling its neck. Its large, grotesque eyeballs of red on yellow.

He'd burned its likeness into his inner eye. Now it was time to banish it.

Ken cleared his throat and began to read.

“Hear me, forest!” he boomed. “Hear me, trees! Hear me, bushes and leaves!”

The wraith began screeching again, making Ken wince, but he knew Chip had it worse. Through a quick glance, Ken saw Chip’s ears folded as far back as they could go. Misdreavus really were the worst kind of wraith. Ken would make it up to Chip later. Right now, though…

Ken returned the wraith’s image to his mind and continued.

“In our midst we find a spirit impure! A being of death and rot and decay!”

A wind picked up. A beginner would mistake it for just any forest breeze, but Ken knew it meant his words were working. He was advancing at a good pace. Maybe he would even get this done in less than three repetitions.

“I plead thee, verdance; cast out this fiend! Deliver it from this world to the next!”

Golden light ignited among the scattered pecha leaves. Yes!

“In the name of Celebi, let this wraith begone!”

The light crept further along the leaves. He might get this done by the second repetition.

“Hear me, forest!” he shouted, louder than before. “Hear me, trees! Hear me, bushes and leaves!”

Chip barked. The wraith’s dashes became longer, reaching even outside the circle, though it still bounced back to the center like before. The glow in Chip’s eyes faded and brightened erratically. His hold was slipping.

No, they couldn’t fail now. They couldn’t let this wraith get away. It would tell its troupe, and then…

He might just lose someone dear to the wraiths again.

Ken gritted his teeth. He drew his lungs full of air. He reached into the wraith in his mind and grabbed it.

“In our midst we find a spirit impure!”

The golden light expanded, covering the leaves completely.

“A being of death and rot and decay!”

The wraith’s hem received a golden lining. The wraith stopped. It looked at itself.

“I plead thee, verdance; cast out this fiend!”

The light began to eat away at its skin. It screamed.

“Deliver it from this world to the next!”

It thrashed about, but it was no use. The light corroded it faster and faster, reaching its neck, mouth, eyes - yet it kept screaming. Its orbs trembled in the air.

Ken’s heart drummed like a pikipek. He clenched his fists.

“In the name of Celebi, let this wraith begone!”

The light ate up what little was left. Cracks appeared in the orbs.

They shattered, and the screaming stopped.

Silence fell over the woods as the golden glow of the circle faded. The pecha leaves were gone - there was only ash.

Chip collapsed.

“Chip!” Ken cried, rushing to the umbreon’s side.

Chip looked back, lazily flicking his tail.

Ken sighed in relief. Chip was alright. He was just resting.

Ken knelt down. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t realize the screaming would be so bad.” He stroked Chip’s side. “I should’ve gotten you something for your ears.”

Chip mrowed.

Ken smiled. “You did a real good job.” He stood up. “We might not have been able to go fishing today, but I’ll make sure you’ll get fish to eat tonight. That’s a promise.”

Chip’s eyes widened. His tail wagged with a lot more energy than he seemed to have only moments ago.

Ken grinned, gesturing to Chip to come with him. “Come on. Let’s clean up and go home before someone shows up.”

Chip trilled and forced himself to his feet. While his motions were still sluggish, his tail kept up a consistent little wag.

---

The next morning, Ken awoke peacefully to the morning light.

He took a deep breath in and stretched - oh, it felt good. He tried to remember what he’d dreamt of. Hazy images of sitting in a rowboat with Chip floated through his mind. He’d felt the oars in his hands and the sun on his face.

He sighed, relieved he’d had no nightmares this time. Only pleasant dreams.

It was a little surprising after yesterday’s events. The morning had been very stressful, after all, with finding out about the wraiths and then going out to exorcise one… but it was true that the rest of the day had been much more relaxed. After they’d scattered the ashes and hurried home, Ken had kept his promise and driven with Chip to the supermarket to pick out a fillet of fish, but also to get some other groceries and some ear protection for Chip - a funny-looking hood that would go over his ears. He’d look silly with it, but Ken was sure Chip would still prefer it to having to listen to the wraiths’ screams without any cover again.

After that, they’d returned home and stayed indoors the whole day to be safe. While Chip had been eating his well-earned treat or taking a well-earned rest, Ken had read the news, watched TV, napped and done some cleaning as well as other miscellaneous activities. It had, in the end, been a pretty good day after all.

But the threat of the wraiths was still real. He should likely avoid going outside today, too. He wasn’t really sure when he would be confident enough to go exorcising again, but he felt like it’d become clearer to him with some time passed. It was also possible that there’d be some new developments regarding the wraiths. Their arrival was still very fresh. Ken might not have been the only one upset enough to try and do something about it.

Well, he could think more about it once he’d had his morning coffee. He got out of bed, waking up Chip with his barefooted steps, and the two moved through their morning routine together. It played out similarly to yesterday with the exception of the prayer - Ken made sure to do it as respectfully as he could now that there were forces of evil afoot. Rarely had divine protection been more important.

For breakfast it was the same wet food for Chip. Ken decided to make some eggs himself. He brought his breakfast to the living room and turned on the TV. The news had just ended. He rewound back to the beginning of the broadcast and watched it in full, but nothing was mentioned about the wraith situation. He supposed it was a good thing.

He went to pick up the newspaper at his door. There’d been an article on the misdreavus in it yesterday, but its contents had essentially been the same as the news report’s. He skimmed through the paper, but found no mention of ghosts there, either. It really seemed like nothing of note had happened… that, or whatever had happened had been kept secret. Ken hoped for the former.

A ring of his doorbell startled him. He froze. He wasn't expecting anyone.

For two seconds, he didn't know what to do. On the third, he made his decision.

"Just a minute," he shouted, then rushed to the basement. He grabbed the amulet, put it around his neck and rushed back. He checked the nearby rooms - the talismans were present and accounted for. He was protected.

He was about to call Chip, but the umbreon had already arrived, ears perked and alert. Ken nodded towards the door, and Chip took his position. If it was a wraith, the first thing it would see was an umbreon. If the talismans somehow didn't deter it, the sight of a dark-type should.

They were ready. Well, not as ready as they could've been, as Chip hadn't charged up, but there was still the possibility that this was something legitimately urgent, like… Ken couldn't come up with an example on the spot, but he knew something like that existed.

Heart pounding in his throat, Ken reached for the lock. After a deep breath, he twisted it and slowly opened the door. He kept his eyes on Chip, looking for any signs of fear or aggression, but none came. He then looked at the arrival himself.

Vera.

Leaning on the doorframe, breathing heavily. Wet, dirty clothes. Boots caked with mud. Golden hair in tangles. Blue eyes pleading.

She tried to step in, but Chip hissed, not about to let a stranger barge in without permission. She tried again, and he hissed louder, rings lighting up.

“Chip,” Ken said, and the umbreon looked at him. “That’s Vera. She’s a friend.” Ken glanced back at her. “If that’s really her, and not a wraith trick. Chip, scan.”

Chip closed his eyes and concentrated. Ken grasped his amulet, eyeing Vera. She'd stepped back to lean on the doorframe again. She shook as she gasped in air and wheezed it out.

He wanted to pull her in, slam the door and squeeze her tight without a thought, but this just wasn't right. Vera was… gone. She couldn't just show up like this. She was…

Was she dead?

Legally, she was dead, but that was simply something agreed upon. In practice, she'd only gone missing, and she'd never been found. He didn't know she was dead. He'd only decided so because he didn't think she'd ever come back.

No, this had to be a trick. Any moment now, Chip would open his eyes and attack the wraith responsible for this. The illusion would dissipate. Vera would be gone again. Not that she’d ever really been there.

Chip chirped.

Ken looked at Chip. The umbreon's rings were no longer glowing. His tail hung relaxed. He blinked.

There wasn't a wraith?

"Please… just let me in…"

Ken looked back to Vera. She had spoken. The voice was unmistakably hers.

"They could be… after me…"

Ragged breaths chopped up her speech. Her slouch had gotten lower. She looked like she might collapse.

That was enough. Illusion or not, it was Vera. And if a wraith was somehow doing this, it already had to be immune to the talismans, which meant Ken was screwed in any case.

Ken stepped out and grabbed her under the arms. She was nearly limp. His arms strained beneath her weight, but he pulled her in nevertheless and began escorting her to the living room.

"Thank you…" she wheezed.

She felt real. She looked real, she sounded real, and now she felt real. She smelled real, too, but that wasn't as pleasant - Ken's nose wrinkled at the odor of old sweat.

Once he'd lowered her onto the couch, he dashed back to close the door. With equal hurry, he rushed back to the couch and kneeled down by her side. Now that they were safe, he had all of his time to give, and he wanted to give it all to her.

"Are you alright?" Ken asked, though it may have been a stupid question. "Do you want anything? Water?"

"Water…"

Posthaste, Ken retrieved a glass of water for her. She drank it in one go.

“More?” Ken asked, taking back the glass.

“No,” she sighed.

“Anything else? Food?”

“No, I…” She sluggishly shook her head, eyes closing. “I think I want to rest for now…”

Ken nodded fervently, even if she couldn’t see it. “Alright. I understand.”

Vera mumbled something in return. Probably a ‘thanks’.

Ken stood up. After a second or two of wondering what to do next, he began untying her boots.

An inquisitive trill came from behind. Ken turned his head to see Chip creeping closer. Chip craned his neck towards the woman on the couch and trilled again.

“That’s Vera,” Ken whispered. “She’s… I’ve talked to you about her sometimes.”

Chip blinked, then sat down.

“Don’t bother her,” Ken said, taking off Vera’s now loosened boots. “But…” He grabbed the boots and stepped back. “Keep an eye on her, alright?” he said, holding up a palm and then pointing to Vera. Chip acknowledged the order with a wag of his tail.

Ken placed the boots down gently in the hall, careful to keep quiet. He took a deep breath. Alright, what now? Well, he could make some food - but was it too soon? He didn’t know how long she’d want to rest. What else could he do? He couldn’t really remove her clothes without having to move her body around, and he wanted her to get the rest she deserved…

He decided to at least get some fresh clothes ready for her once she’d woken up and showered - if she had the energy to shower, that was. He headed for the basement to check the cupboards. He picked out a sweater, nice and warm, and sweatpants, and socks and underwear…

---

Two hours had passed by the time Vera began to wake up, but to Ken, it had been an eternity.

He shuffled to her side to make sure she woke up feeling safe. Once she’d opened her eyes, he asked her about food again. She agreed to eat a sandwich. Ken made that sandwich with unrivaled speed, and Vera ate it with unrivaled slowness. But he knew it was better for her to pace herself. It was hard to imagine anything more tragic than Vera choking to death on a sandwich right after her miraculous return.

After her meal, Vera showered. Ken stayed behind the shower door, listening in case of any accidents, though Vera assured him she was fine. He handed her her towel and bathrobe and escorted her back upstairs, where she used the bathroom. Once she emerged and began putting on the fresh clothes, Ken realized how close they were now to their next conversation. To her finally explaining what had happened, where she had been. If she felt like talking about it, anyway. Ken really hoped she did. The sooner they could unravel all this, the sooner they could return to normalcy. The way everything used to be. The right way.

All dressed up, Vera sat back on the couch. This was it. Though… Ken didn't want to push her. It had to be her that started talking.

He waited in silence, but she didn't say a thing, only staring at the floor with a blank expression on her face.

Ken became aware of the ticking of the clock in the room. To ease his impatience, he counted the seconds. One, two, three…



"What day is it?"

At two-hundred fifty-two, she had spoken.

"June third," Ken answered. "149."

Vera raised her head, eyes wide. "149?"

Ken nodded. "You went missing in 144."

"Five years…" She lowered her gaze again, frowning. "Well, I guess time could have passed differently there…"

"There?"

She looked at Ken, then sighed. "Right. I should probably explain what happened to me…"

Ken prepared himself to listen more carefully than he'd ever listened before.

She took a deep breath. "So, you saw when the wraiths took me."

A tidal wave of suppressed images loomed over Ken. "Yes," he said, trying his best not to look into that dark corner of his mind.

"When they pulled me down into the lake."

The lake. He remembered a splash --

"Yes, yes…" said Ken quickly, holding his head. Shame clawed at his heart right after. He was making this about him.

"I'm sorry," he sighed. "They're just… bad memories. Please, go on."

"It's alright. I'm past that part of the story already."

Ken deflated with relief.

"So…" Vera continued. "They took me… somewhere. It was pitch black and cold and wet, but I could breathe. The wraiths were there, whispering something, but it was in some language of their own. They didn’t do anything more to me, though, not that I can remember. But I couldn’t go anywhere or think straight. It was like I was constantly about to fall asleep.” She frowned. “I know I didn’t have much of a sense of time there, but… five years still seems like way too much. It wasn’t that long. Maybe days. I don’t think I’d be alive if it was really five years there…"

“How did you get away?”

She scratched her neck. “I’m not sure. I heard noises, noises from some other kind of wraith. There were a lot of them. They got more and more aggressive as the water-wraiths responded and got angry themselves. Then I heard fighting, and light began pouring in. Suddenly, I was underwater, and then I came up to the surface. I saw the sky and the woods. I was back in the real world, though the noises hadn’t stopped. Looking around, I saw the water-wraiths fighting a mismagius.”

A jolt ran through Ken’s body. Mismagius?

“Some of them glanced at me, but were too busy fighting to get to me. I scrambled out of the lake and started running. I found a familiar path and followed it home, and…” She gestured to the house. “You know the rest.”

“That explains it,” Ken breathed.

“What explains what?”

He looked to Vera. “Just a day ago, a troupe of misdreavus arrived here in Ilex. They must have had some… territorial dispute with the water-wraiths, and that let you escape.”

She tilted her head. “I guess so.”

Ken sank into his thoughts. If the misdreavus hadn’t arrived, she’d still be stuck in that strange realm. Still, it felt wrong to feel glad about the arrival of the wraiths. For him and Vera, it was very fortunate, but there would still be humans and mon out there getting the life sucked out of them… unless he managed to shoo them away with more exorcisms. But he’d have to steer clear of the lake. He didn’t know what he’d be up against there…

“You were right about them.”

Ken snapped back to the present. “Huh?”

Vera stared at the floor, hands clasped on her lap. “You were right about wraiths.”

Ken blinked. Had there ever been any question?

Before he could dwell on it for long, Vera looked up again, faintly smiling. She gestured to Chip, who’d been sitting and watching silently across the room. “So, who’s your friend?”

“Ah!” A warm smile rose to Ken’s face. He snapped his fingers, and the umbreon trotted beside his armchair. Ken reached his hand down and scratched Chip behind the ear, though Chip seemed to be too preoccupied watching Vera to appreciate it.

“This is Chip,” Ken explained. “I met him three years ago as an eevee. It was winter. I was on a walk when I found him lying on his side in the snow, barely breathing. He was all cold, so I brought him indoors. I expected him to get feisty when he recovered, but…” He ruffled Chip’s fur. “He wanted to stay.”

Chip looked up at Ken and chirped.

“He’s very handsome,” Vera said, leaning down and extending a hand. Chip walked over cautiously and sniffed her fingers. Ken held his breath. Chip wasn’t usually friendly with strangers. Sometimes he’d even get nippy.

This time, though, it seemed like Chip didn’t mind, bowing his head to receive Vera’s scratches. Perhaps he’d seen how warm Ken had been towards her and recognized her as a friend. Not that he was anywhere near as affectionate as he was with Ken, but that was only to be expected.

After a short while, though, Chip decided he’d had his fill and returned to Ken’s side.

“Good boy,” whispered Ken, stroking his back. “Not bad for a first meeting.”

“I hope he’ll warm up to me,” Vera said.

“Oh, I’m sure he’ll be doing backflips for you as soon as you pick up his food bowl.”

Vera chuckled. The sound awoke feelings Ken hadn’t felt in five years. His nose tingled. Tears threatened to surface. His face distorted with both a smile and a frown.

But it didn’t matter, since Vera was here now.

Everything was fine again.

---

When Ken awoke the next day, he got up without delay. Now that Vera was back, he didn't want to waste a second of their time together. Though he'd let her sleep for as long as she liked, of course. After everything that had happened to her, she deserved her rest.

Ken quietly called Chip, and the two began their morning routine. Once the time had come for their prayer, Vera had awoken. She chose to join them right then, and they all settled before the shrine and prayed together. Like a family.

The morning continued without surprises until Vera, having finished her breakfast, spoke up at the kitchen table.

"We should probably tell the police what happened," she said.

Ken took a sharp breath in. "Gods, that's right. We need to let the government know you're not dead."

Vera perked up her head. "I'm legally dead?"

"Yeah," Ken responded. "I, uh… didn't think you were coming back. And…" He shrank. "Your life insurance would've gone to waste."

Vera waved a hand. "No, don't feel bad. There was no way you could've known."

Ken looked down at his cup of coffee. "I did wait," he quietly said. "I didn't want to jump at the chance…"

A bark-howl cut him off. Chip had jumped up to the window, forepaws on the windowsill.

Ken got up and approached, heart beginning to pound. "What is it, Chip?"

Chip bark-howled again. Ken rushed the final steps and peeked outside, but saw nothing but the woods. It must have been invisible.

"Is there something there?" called Vera from the kitchen.

Ken was about to answer when Chip got down and zoomed out of the room. Ken ran after him and found him pawing at the front door, continuing to bark.

What did Chip mean by that? Why would he want to go outside if there was a dangerous wraith? Was it something they absolutely had to take care of now before things somehow got worse?

Chip looked back at Ken. One glimpse into the umbreon's desperate eyes confirmed Ken's guess.

Ken snatched the amulet off the coat rack and put it on. He grabbed his backpack from the corner of the hall, knowing it still contained his notebook and the pouch of pecha leaves. Was that everything he needed?

Steps approached. Vera was coming. Oh, Gods, Ken already knew what was next…

"What's going on?" she asked, tone more scolding than worried.

"There's something outside. I need to get rid of it," replied Ken as quickly as he could, already reaching for the door handle.

"What? Hey, hold on!" Vera grabbed his shoulder. "You can't go out! It's too dangerous!"

Ken pushed her hand away. "It's more dangerous to stay!" he snapped, cranking the lock and shoving the door open. Chip shot out like a missile, and Ken wasn't much slower. Vera started shouting something, but Ken slammed the door shut. "Don't come after me!" Ken barked back and hoped that settled the matter for now.

They circled the house. Ken wore his backpack with one strap only, ready to swing it around and dig out his equipment at a moment's notice. They arrived at the back yard, and Ken --

No, Chip didn't stay in the yard. He dashed into the woods instead. Maybe the wraith had started to flee?

Ken followed the mon. Chip moved ahead in spurts, stopping after each one to make sure Ken was still following and had the umbreon in his sight. After a while, Ken's stomach began to sink - this wasn't right. They were getting far from the house, leaving Vera all by herself. The house did have the talismans to protect her, but what if the wraiths knew some way to bypass them?

It was a trap.

Ken stopped running. "Chip! Get back here!"

Chip turned around. He barked in defiance.

"Get back here right now!" Ken shouted, planting his feet firmly on the ground.

But Chip ran further. Out of sight. Why wasn't he listening?

"Chip!" Ken roared, but the umbreon's steps only got more distant. A new fear tore itself into his heart. What if they got Chip?

He didn't want to encourage Chip by continuing to run, but he much less wanted to find his lifeless corpse, fur all gray and patchy from premature aging --

There was no other option. Ken kept running.

The chase continued on like before despite Ken’s increasingly desperate calls. To make matters worse, they’d long since entered unfamiliar territory. Ken’s backpack did contain a map and compass, but those would do them little good if the wraiths found them…

Chip slowed down.

He didn’t stop, but his run had become a trot, and he’d begun to move at a steady pace rather than in spurts.

“Are we getting close?” Ken asked, but Chip spun around and growled on top of Ken’s words. Chip wanted him to be quiet, it seemed. While Ken still didn’t want Chip to have his way, he certainly didn’t want a wraith to get the jump on them. He piped down accordingly.

Soon enough, the trees up ahead seemed to end at a clearing. Chip slowed down even further and Ken followed his lead. They crept along the path, Ken barely remembering to breathe, until they cleared the last trees and saw the --

Lake.

That lake.

Ken gasped and turned his head, raising a hand to cover up the left side of his vision. He couldn’t look, no. Something very bad would happen if he did. He felt like a child at the mercy of this fear, but he’d gladly take the shame if it meant sparing himself from whatever threatened to rear its head now.

He flinched as something touched his leg, but calmed down once he saw it was Chip. The umbreon still had that burning urgency in his eyes. He wanted Ken to keep following. Follow him where? The lake? Did he want to take on the water-wraiths?

“No,” Ken breathed. “No, we can’t take them on. You can’t hold them all steady. I can’t exorcise them all. We have to leave it to professionals.” He stepped back into the woods. “We need to get back home. Now.”

Chip whined, then barked in defiance. His paws thumped against the ground, the noise rapidly receding - he was headed for the lake.

"No!" Ken screamed, turning around and running after Chip. The view burned his eyes like the sun, shrieking every second how it would ruin him, but he had no choice. He would not lose Chip.

He pinned his eyes to the black shape and ordered his brain to perceive nothing else as he ran after the mon, but his mind was not so easily molded. He saw the lake, he saw the waves, he saw the sparkles on its back. He saw the grass and the reeds. He saw rocks, and he saw --

He brought his gaze back to Chip in the nick of time. The cliff was still far enough to the side for him to keep his eyes from straying there. Maybe, just maybe, that'd keep the darkness at bay.

Ken opened his mouth to call after Chip again, knowing full well it would change nothing - when another voice called another name.

"Ken!"

Chip stopped. Ken stopped. Both turned around.

To see no lake and to see no cliff was shade from the searing sun, but what Ken did see brought on another pain of its own.

Vera.

Ken's hands balled into fists. "What the hell are you doing?" he snapped. "You were supposed to stay at home!"

Vera did not respond. Instead, her head turned to the right - towards the forbidden sight. She shielded her eyes from the sunlight, a puzzled look on her face. She was clearly seeing something strange, but Ken could not allow himself to look. He covered the view with a hand again, this time on the opposite side.

"Didn't the cliff overlook the lake?" she asked, utterly ignoring Ken's words.

"What?"

"The cliff where I fell from. When I fell down into the lake and the wraiths --"

The barrage of images threatened to pop Ken's brain like a lightbulb. "Stop!" he screamed. "Don't talk about that!"

Vera's face stayed unsettlingly calm. She pointed a finger towards the unseen cliff. "But the cliff doesn't overlook the lake," she continued. "How could I have fallen off the cliff and into the lake?"

She had fallen. She had screamed. There’d been a splash. The horror of those split-second memories was almost enough to keep Ken from realizing what she had just said. Almost, but not quite.

The cliff didn’t overlook the lake. He’d seen it moments ago. The edge of the lake was on even ground, well away from the cliff.

But she had fallen off the cliff and into the lake. There had to be an explanation…

“The waters were probably higher back then,” Ken quickly said. “Or the wraiths grabbed you in the middle of the fall…”

Vera shook her head. “No, it looked like this back then. Don’t you remember?”

Remember?

Remember that horrible day?

“I don’t want to remember!” Ken roared as loudly as he could.

Vera flinched, eyes widening in shock.

Her body scattered like dust in the wind.

Ken stared at where she had stood, jaw hanging, until he realized something obvious.

This was the work of a wraith.

He spun around to Chip. The umbreon stared back from the edge of the lake, motionless until he barked. His form dissolved into fine powder before the echo had even faded.

Neither of them had been real.

“Correct.”

The voice was eerie, breathy, masculine.

Ken recognized it from the news.

“Correct again.”

Ken tried to turn to the direction of the speaker, but he didn’t know where that was. The voice seemed to come from everywhere at once.

“Confused?” the voice asked. “Allow me to show myself to you. Perhaps it will be easier to speak that way.”

Purple fire ignited at the edge of the clearing, in the safe direction where there were only trees. It brought into being some cloth of similar purple, as if the fabric was burning in reverse. Ken already knew the result to expect.

Once the ribbon-tailed mismagius had materialized, the fire went out, leaving only the wraith in its wake. For the most part, he looked identical to his appearance on the news, but his expression was different. The smile on his ethereal lips was not small and polite but unnervingly wide, and his eyes… Ken didn't know how he knew it, but there was a deep hatred in that stare.

Ken reached for the amulet around his neck - but it felt wrong. He looked down. Instead of a smooth wooden panel, there was a similarly shaped piece of bark.

He wasn't protected.

"Wh-where is my amulet?" Ken shouted, trying to cover up his fear with aggression.

"Gone," Ribbontail replied. "Broken. Cast away. Replaced by simple bark, just like all the talismans in your house."

His house wasn't protected, either.

"It was not easy to bypass those defenses," Ribbontail explained, voice infuriatingly calm, "but to us ghosts, few things are truly impossible."

"Where's Chip and Vera?" Ken demanded. "What have you done to them?"

"Chip is with us. He is safe. We bear him no ill will - it is clear his hatred of us was something he was taught. In fact, we have already rectified the matter."

A chill shot down Ken's spine. "What do you mean?"

"To remove his prejudice, we removed all his memories about you. Afterwards, we explained to him his past - how he belonged to an awful man named Ken that used him to murder ghosts. Needless to say, he never wants to see you again."

He'd never see Chip again?

No, the wraith was lying. That's what they did best, after all. Chip was out there somewhere, probably looking for Ken.

"You don't have to believe me," Ribbontail said. "But if you ever cross paths with him again, you will know that I am telling the truth by the way he hisses and claws at you."

The mismagius leaned forward, expression darkening. "As for where Vera is…"

Hearing his wife's name from this monster's mouth, Ken nearly lost his lunch. They had Vera. What had they done with Vera? Had they taken her back to the lake? Or was she their prisoner of war against the water-wraiths?

Ribbontail cocked his brow. "Come on, Ken. You really still believe she came back?"

…No. She couldn't have been fake. He'd felt her flesh and blood against his arms. She'd spoken and acted exactly the way he remembered. She'd…

"For the past two days, you have been alone in your house."

Ken's legs failed him. He collapsed onto his knees, flattening the grass underneath.

"Save for us ghosts, of course," Ribbontail added quickly. "We were very busy maintaining those illusions. It was quite a challenge making them seem like they were really tangible and interacting with real objects. Food and drinks especially. Oh, what a mess."

Ken covered his face with his hands. Patchy breathing echoed back.

Stupid. Stupid. Stupid. Of course she’d been an illusion. She showed up the day after he exorcised that misdreavus. Chip had scanned her, sure, but he should have known Chip was an illusion too. He should have known the talismans weren’t enough to protect him. He should have been more careful. But he wasn’t. And now Chip was gone. Chip was gone because of him.

The breathing broke down into sobs. Tears squeezed through his eyes and stained his palms.

“Aren’t you forgetting something?”

Ken lowered his hands. He jolted back to his feet and stumbled backwards as he saw the misdreavus right in front of him.

“What do you still want?” Ken asked, face twisted in agony. “Haven’t you made me suffer enough?”

Ribbontail’s face stayed expressionless, even as he spoke. “Didn’t the cliff overlook the lake?”

Ken's brief respite from the forbidden images ended right there.

"No, shut up!" he screamed, covering his ears and squeezing his eyes shut.

"It's time for you to stop avoiding it."

Something seized his body and spun it around. The same something grabbed his hands and yanked them off his ears. Telekinesis, no doubt, but he refused to open his eyes to check. He would not subject himself to that sight again.

The force which pried his eyelids apart begged to differ.

The view opened up before Ken in its full horror: the cliff to the right, the lake to the left and the undeniable distance between them in the middle.

But he already knew about it. It had been the same back then.

Ribbontail floated right behind him. "Why don't we find out what really happened five years ago?"

Two forms appeared atop the cliff, fading in. Two humans, Vera and Ken. They flailed their arms. They shouted at each other. Each word they spoke was unknown before it came and painfully familiar afterwards.

“It’s always like this!” Vera shouted. “I dare to suggest a different point of view, and you just pounce on me immediately!”

“The points are just wrong!” Ken barked back. “I need to tell you that before you start believing any more their lies! That’s how they get you!”

“You are fucking insane! Everything has to be some evil conspiracy in your head! Yeah, sure, the little shuppet in the woods is in on the worldwide masquerade! He attends a meeting of the Global Wraith Council every week to be up to speed on the latest scheme! Or maybe he just catches the broadcast on the secret aura frequency that’s turning us all infertile!”

“Don’t lump me in with those nutjobs!”

“How exactly are you different?”

Their voices faded out, then in again, later in the same conversation. Their bodies did the same, now standing a little bit closer to edge.

Vera covered her face with a hand. “I can’t do this anymore,” she said, voice breaking.

“Are you crying? Are you crying again? Oh, I’m such a terrible husband,” yelled Ken mockingly. “I’m so mean and controlling. I don’t let you go play with the nice wraiths and let you get your soul sucked out like a real independent woman.”

Ken, the real Ken, felt like vomiting. The taste of those words, forgotten for so long, had returned to his throat.

But worse was the darkness in his mind - the forbidden mineshaft Ribbontail had dragged him deeper and deeper into, lighting the way as they descended. And Ken knew the bottom was near.

He wanted to turn away and run. He wanted to escape while he still could. He wanted to beg the wraith for any kind of alternate punishment. Anything but this. Anything but the knowledge of what it was he’d gone to so much trouble to bury.

But the scene went on.

Vera looked at Ken, the Ken of the past. Her eyes were reddened with tears and rage. His teeth gritted together, and the blood in his hands made his fists burn. The present Ken couldn’t see these things from so far away, of course. He remembered them.

With a teary voice, Vera said it.

“I want a divorce.”

She wanted a divorce. She wanted to undo their marriage over him telling her the truth. Keeping her safe. Wanting the world to be free of life-sucking, lie-spewing, unholy monsters.

Ungrateful bitch.

He raised his hands and shoved her.

Her eyes widened in shock, indignance, fear, terror.

She fell off the edge.

She screamed.

She screamed.

Until she hit the ground.

Thump.

Ken looked over the edge. Vera’s body lay meters below, unmoving.

“Vera?” he called. No response.

It was silent there, and it was silent in Ken’s mind. Silent and bright as the day around them.

The darkness had come into light.

“Is that how ‘the wraiths took her’, Ken?” Ribbontail asked, his breath cold against Ken’s neck.

No words could form in Ken’s mind. Not for a response, not even for thought. All he had were images, sounds, sensations, emotions. The cliff, his rage, her eyes, her scream, her motionless body, his realization - back then, and now all over again.

That what had just happened was real.

“And then what happened?”

A word finally came to Ken. No. Another. No more.

The bodies faded in and out again. No, just one of them did. Ken had gotten down the cliff and next to Vera, but Vera hadn’t moved an inch. Ken saw his previous self inspecting her. He lifted her head. Underneath it was a rock, stained with crimson, as was the left side of her head.

“You realized she was really dead.”

The past Ken covered his face and fell to his knees. He leaned down to embrace her, but the limpness of her body was too disturbing to bear. His ragged breaths turned into sobs. He cried like a child.

“You also realized there were consequences.”

A subtle fade transitioned his sobs to hyperventilation. His nails dug to his scalp.

“You decided to act.”

He got up. He looked at the lake. He looked at her. He faded into having her body in his arms, slowly walking towards the shore. He walked through the reeds and stopped to stare at the water.

“The lakewater was murky.”

He walked in waist deep. He stood there for a while, hesitating, until he swung her body backwards and hurled her into the water.

Splash.

Ken watched as the ripples from the impact slowly faded. He crouched over the water, trying to peer under the surface. He couldn’t see anything.

“You were lucky it was deep enough.”

He straightened his back, but continued to stare at where she’d fallen. He covered his face again. He shivered.

He faded away to appear back at the shore, walking away from the lake. His clothes were soaked from the waist down, clinging to his skin and dripping water. Each step was heavy.

He stopped to take one last look at the lake. A moment later, he turned his head and continued walking, fading away.

Once he was gone, the force supporting Ken disappeared. He tumbled down, narrowly breaking his fall with his arms. He realized he’d blinked. He did it again, over and over, until his eyes finally felt comfortable again.

“You told the authorities she’d gone missing,” Ribbontail said. “You told yourself the same. Eventually, you believed it.”

Ken turned to the wraith, but quickly decided he didn’t want to see the bastard. He fixed his eyes on the ground instead, watching the grass shiver in the wind. A bit like he’d shivered in the lake when he was dumping Vera’s body. Like a murderer. Like a monster.

“And here I thought you were used to murder.”

Ken gave Ribbontail a dirty glare. The mismagius’ arms were splayed in a shrug.

“After all, you didn’t seem too bothered about killing Moonsong.”

The little wraith. The whole reason Ribbontail had come after him.

All of this could have been avoided if he hadn’t exorcised it.

Ken nearly fell back into his rumination, but managed to bring his focus to the present for now. As much as he hated to, he looked back at Ribbontail.

“What are you gonna do with me now?” Ken asked, voice hoarse and quiet. “Are you gonna kill me?”

Ribbontail shook his head. “No. I want you to live knowing all that you’ve learned today. Death would only free you from the pain.”

He frowned. “But if I ever hear of you having exorcised a ghost again…” He leaned closer. “I will find you, I will kill you, and I will make it hurt.”

The last word chilled Ken to his core.

Ribbontail floated back. “That’s all,” he said. “Goodbye, Ken. Let us never meet again.”

He turned around and flew into the woods, ribbons billowing behind him. It wasn’t long before he disappeared from view.

Too tired to sit up anymore, Ken lay down on the grass.

Gentle sunlight warmed his face. A breeze whistled softly in his ears. It was a beautiful day. It had been a beautiful day back then, too.

But the past was in the past. Vera was gone. Vera was gone, like she’d been the last five years.

At least he still had Chip.

Oh, wait.

Ken curled up in a ball and cried.

---

END

---​
 
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Dragonfree

Moderator
Staff
Location
Iceland
Pronouns
she/her/hers
Partners
  1. butterfree
  2. mightyena
  3. charizard
  4. custom/scyther-mia
Hoo boy, what a story.

I figured from the start that Vera didn't actually get killed by ghosts, but didn't have an inkling of where it wound up actually going (though you foreshadow it nicely throughout). I thought you did a lovely job of writing Ken's POV, his prejudice, his relationship with Chip, and the breakdown of his cultivated defense mechanisms towards the end. I also really liked the opening dream, for one reason or another - the prose felt especially lush with sensory detail, and all in all it really sold how it all feels before the sudden unsettling realization that Vera is dead. Also, as always your worldbuilding feels very grounded and nuanced, with a lot of thought and rich detail to how things work. I liked him praying to Celebi, all the talismans he uses, the ways he goes about hunting ghosts.

The twist was great, and I definitely enjoyed the way he's completely buried this memory, rearranged things in his head into a new order where it was the ghosts that took her and her death actually proved he was right about the ghosts all along, after she died because they were arguing about his hatred of ghosts. There's a delicious irony in that.

After finishing, though, I did find myself feeling jarringly like a lot of the story was kind of a red herring. I'm not quite sure why Ribbontail went to the trouble of getting around all the talismans and the amulet and creating enormously difficult tangible illusions that appear to validate Ken's prejudices for a solid couple of days, if what he really wanted was just to show Ken that he killed his wife and force him to face up to and live with that. It seems like a whole lot of trouble for not all that much of a purpose, as far as I can tell - I guess they needed Ken to go far enough into the woods to see the cliff again, but surely they could have done that without the whole song and dance about her being alive and painstakingly play-acting an illusion of her in his home for some 24 hours at least? I'm not quite sure what I'm meant to take away from the entire Vera section of the story, in the end - when I was initially reading it it felt like it was hinting actually the Misdreavus troupe had rescued her from some other ghosts, etc., but given all of that was an illusion and ghosts never had anything to do with what happened to her, I'm not sure what it really meant, whether it told me anything new about Ken, or why the Misdreavus had her say the particular things she said and not something else.

Granted, this is something I might feel differently about if I were to reread the story with the truth in mind - it'd probably become clearer to me what you were going for with all that on a second read! This is just what I came away with off the initial read.

The other thing about this is that for me it sort of weirdly almost validated Ken's prejudices, because the way Ribbontail and the ghosts go about this feels downright cruel to me. It is, of course, punishment for a murder (two of them, even) - but as punishment goes, elaborately making someone think their missing wife has come back alive for a couple of days only to then reveal he killed her himself, while erasing his only friend's memory of him, has to qualify as cruel and unusual. I feel kind of uncomfortable with what they did to Chip for Chip's own sake, too - it seems like they just erased most of the entire person he's been for the past three years, right, which is like, his entire adult life? So all in all I find myself coming away from the story fairly sympathetic to Ken, as a deeply misguided and prejudiced man who did kill his wife but also was clearly deeply horrified by that and does kill ghosts but is sincerely convinced they will slowly murder people otherwise, and feeling pretty creeped out by Ribbontail and his troupe, which was definitely not how I expected to come away from this story. Maybe that's exactly the intended reaction (you did explore ghosts having entirely different conceptions of morality in Judgment), but I'm not totally sure.

Either way, though, this was a very compelling, very interesting, very memorable one-shot and I enjoyed it a lot. Nice work! Feel free to DM if you want to talk about any part of this.
 
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canisaries

you should've known the price of evil
Location
Stovokor
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she/her
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  1. custom/inkay-shirlee
  2. custom/houndoom-elliot
  3. custom/yamask-joanna
Thanks for the review! And thanks again for the beta help, too.

After finishing, though, I did find myself feeling jarringly like a lot of the story was kind of a red herring. I'm not quite sure why Ribbontail went to the trouble of getting around all the talismans and the amulet and creating enormously difficult tangible illusions that appear to validate Ken's prejudices for a solid couple of days, if what he really wanted was just to show Ken that he killed his wife and force him to face up to and live with that. It seems like a whole lot of trouble for not all that much of a purpose, as far as I can tell - I guess they needed Ken to go far enough into the woods to see the cliff again, but surely they could have done that without the whole song and dance about her being alive and painstakingly play-acting an illusion of her in his home for some 24 hours at least? I'm not quite sure what I'm meant to take away from the entire Vera section of the story, in the end - when I was initially reading it it felt like it was hinting actually the Misdreavus troupe had rescued her from some other ghosts, etc., but given all of that was an illusion and ghosts never had anything to do with what happened to her, I'm not sure what it really meant, whether it told me anything new about Ken, or why the Misdreavus had her say the particular things she said and not something else.

I intended Moonsong to be Ribbontail's child, which might help explain why he was so pissed that he wanted to do all this, but I didn't realize until now that it doesn't actually seem to be stated or implied anywhere. Either way, Ribbontail's goal was to pretty much emotionally torture Ken by convincing him his wife was back and reminding him just how much he loved her to highlight how terrible the thing he did was. (Also it makes for a cooler story.) It's cruel, but from the ghosts' point of view, Ken went out and purposefully murdered one of them and wanted to murder the rest of them, too. The water wraith story and everything else they made Vera say was just to try and make this all seem logical and authentic so that Ken would really believe she was back before they revealed the truth to him.

I feel kind of uncomfortable with what they did to Chip for Chip's own sake, too - it seems like they just erased most of the entire person he's been for the past three years, right, which is like, his entire adult life?
I actually hadn't given that much thought myself... but I think it's because Chip is meant to have feral or only slightly higher intelligence, so I didn't really view him as a person but more like a pet dog/cat? I mean, yeah, it does suck that a pet has to lose his memories of his owner, but I don't think people would generally consider dogs or cats to have a sense of identity or self-awareness the way humans do. His personality and temperament should still be the same, since as far as I understand, those are stored in a different way than memories?

The ghosts' primary motivation to steal Chip was also not specifically to cause Ken pain, but rather to get an innocent animal away from someone who had trained it to help hunt and kill ghosts. The memories they erased so that Chip wouldn't try to hurt them or just go back to Ken. It is taking away Chip's agency, but it makes sense from the ghosts' point of view.
 

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I intended Moonsong to be Ribbontail's child, which might help explain why he was so pissed that he wanted to do all this, but I didn't realize until now that it doesn't actually seem to be stated or implied anywhere. Either way, Ribbontail's goal was to pretty much emotionally torture Ken by convincing him his wife was back and reminding him just how much he loved her to highlight how terrible the thing he did was. (Also it makes for a cooler story.) It's cruel, but from the ghosts' point of view, Ken went out and purposefully murdered one of them and wanted to murder the rest of them, too. The water wraith story and everything else they made Vera say was just to try and make this all seem logical and authentic so that Ken would really believe she was back before they revealed the truth to him.
That does add some context! I assumed Moonsong was just a random member of the troupe because Ribbontail just identified them as Moonsong and not in a way that suggested it was especially personal, but it makes sense if they were his child specifically.

I think what's striking me about it, though, is that even though Ribbontail has good reason to be livid and despise Ken, this is clearly not a 'crime of passion' on his part - it's meticulously thought-out, very high-effort, involves a bunch of other people coordinating over a couple of days, for the sole purpose of toying with Ken to make it extra painful for him. And to me, clearheadedly going out of your way just to make someone suffer more is pretty evil, regardless of who the victim is and what they've done - so the message I end up with is still a bit, okay, so the Misdreavus troupe really was kind of evil all along? Which isn't necessarily bad, and isn't necessarily going to be a common reaction; I know I tend to have more absolutist feelings on that sort of thing than most people, so ultimately you can take that or leave it.

Either way, I actually went and reread the story, because I wanted to look back at all the foreshadowing and to see if I could pinpoint any more useful thoughts. Something that occurred to me was Vera seems neither particularly happy to see him nor particularly cold - she just sort of arrives and talks mostly about practical matters, in a way that doesn't really read any differently knowing she's an illusion. I found myself wondering if it'd enhance it if she were either more loving, playing into Ken's idealized reality until it's all snatched away again, or if she were more distinctly distant and off, in a way Ken might chalk up to what she's been through but would on a reread reflect the fact the real Vera's relationship with Ken was strained? I feel like either way might make it feel more like the twist recontextualizes the way Vera acted, and thus avoid the feeling I mentioned of it seeming almost irrelevant or like a red herring.

You do say you're not necessarily planning to make more edits to this, of course, which is entirely fair - just thought I'd mention it if it did give you any ideas you like.

I actually hadn't given that much thought myself... but I think it's because Chip is meant to have feral or only slightly higher intelligence, so I didn't really view him as a person but more like a pet dog/cat? I mean, yeah, it does suck that a pet has to lose his memories of his owner, but I don't think people would generally consider dogs or cats to have a sense of identity or self-awareness the way humans do. His personality and temperament should still be the same, since as far as I understand, those are stored in a different way than memories?

The ghosts' primary motivation to steal Chip was also not specifically to cause Ken pain, but rather to get an innocent animal away from someone who had trained it to help hunt and kill ghosts. The memories they erased so that Chip wouldn't try to hurt them or just go back to Ken. It is taking away Chip's agency, but it makes sense from the ghosts' point of view.
Hmmm. I definitely assumed Chip was a good bit more sapient than a dog or cat - in particular, because of the fact it's even possible to explain to him that he used to belong to an awful human who made him kill ghosts, and for him to make a moral judgement that therefore he wants nothing to do with Ken anymore. I'd think that would put him at least on the level of a human child who's learned to understand right and wrong?

Either way, it does make sense they mostly wanted to ensure Chip didn't get used to kill more ghosts without letting him come to harm in the process. Still don't feel entirely morally comfortable with this solution; Chip's level of sapience seems like it should be enough that he'd be capable of not wanting his memories of someone he loves erased. Which, again, isn't necessarily a bad thing; it's a story, and characters in a story can do morally questionable things. Just affects my ability to sympathize with Ribbontail and company.

(If you'd like to tweak it, maybe it'd be possible for them to do something more precise and targeted instead - just beam into him the understanding that ghosts are people and of what Ken did to Vera, and let not wanting to return to Ken be Chip's own choice without him no longer remembering Ken at all?)

As a bonus, I picked out some line quotes on the reread:

The constant burn in their legs reminded they weren’t just walking at an angle
Believe you want "reminded them they weren't..."?

“Vera!” Ken roared as her scream drilled into his ears. That scream. That scream. He ran towards the edge to see what he already knew would be terrible --
Nice foreshadowing - if she really had fallen straight into the lake, there'd hardly have been much terrible to see over the ledge, would there.

Next, he fetched his high-intensity personal amulet, stored in his basement as it was not healthy to stay exposed to an aura dampening field for extended periods of time. That was, at least, what Vera had told him - personally, he understood it more as treating something very powerful with caution and respect.
Another bit of foreshadowing I like, implying Vera not being terribly on board with his animosity toward ghosts.

Instead of continuing on right away, Ken took a moment to himself. The last time he’d walked past this point, he’d had Vera by his side. She hadn’t been with him on his way home.

But he couldn’t let that stop him. No one else was going to do anything about these wraiths. And, really, it was only fitting he’d come here to slay wraiths. Wraiths had been the ones to take Vera away. In a way, he’d be avenging her.
This hurts knowing he's going extra hard on the delusion about it being wraiths because he's being unconsciously reminded of what actually happened.

He prodded at his chest one last time to make sure his amulet was there.
I really liked the way he keeps reaching for his amulet for safety, to reassure himself it's still there - really shows the fear driving his prejudice and feels very true to life.

He might just lose someone dear to the wraiths again.
ha ha ha he sure does end up losing someone dear to the wraiths again

“I shoulda’ve gotten you something for your ears.”
Either "shoulda" or "should've".

She took a deep breath. "So, you saw when the wraiths took me."

A tidal wave of suppressed images loomed over Ken. "Yes," he said, trying his best not to look into that dark corner of his mind.

"When they pulled me down into the lake."

The lake. He remembered a splash --

"Yes, yes…" said Ken quickly, holding his head. Shame clawed at his heart right after. He was making this about him.
This aches knowing exactly what it is that he's refusing to look at in that corner. He sure does remember a splash, doesn't he.

Vera waved a hand. "No, don't feel bad. There was no way you could've known."

Ken looked down at his cup of coffee. "I did wait," he quietly said. "I didn't want to jump at the chance…"

A bark-howl cut him off. Chip had jumped up to the window, forepaws on the windowsill.
Sort of curious what was actually going through the ghosts' heads here. First Vera reassures him regarding the life insurance policy, then immediately Chip puts the final plan into action - I guess what I might have expected here was the bit about claiming the life insurance policy could have set them off to be like fuck, we're not keeping up the pretense any longer than this, except if that was the case I'm surprised they first had Vera react so casually. Don't see an obvious reason they'd react specifically to this line (unless maybe he's lying through his teeth about having waited, but if so it would've been neat to learn that at some point?).

Ken was about to answer when Chip got down and zoomed out the room.
Out of the room, I presume?

"Chip!" Ken roared, but the umbreons steps only got more distant.
Missing apostrophe in umbreon's.

A new fear tore itself into his heart. What if they got Chip?
It really is pretty heartbreaking how much he cares about losing Chip. Drives that stake in harder.

Ken gasped and turned his head, raising a hand to cover up the left side of his vision. He couldn’t look, no. Something very bad would happen if he did. He felt like a child at the mercy of this fear, but he’d gladly take the shame if it meant sparing himself from whatever threatened to rear its head now.
"No!" Ken screamed, turning around and running after Chip. The view burned his eyes like the sun, shrieking every second how it would ruin him, but he had no choice. He would not lose Chip.
He pinned his eyes to the black shape and ordered his brain to perceive nothing else as he ran after the mon, but his mind was not so easily molded. He saw the lake, he saw the waves, he saw the sparkles on its back. He saw the grass and the reeds. He saw rocks, and he saw --

He brought his gaze back to Chip in the nick of time. The cliff was still far enough to the side for him to keep his eyes from straying there. Maybe, just maybe, that'd keep the darkness at bay.
The barrage of images threatened to pop Ken's brain like a lightbulb. "Stop!" he screamed. "Don't talk about that!"
Quite enjoy all these lines about how his mental illusion is teetering on the edge - you find different strong evocative phrasing for it each time and it's very good.

But she had falled off the cliff and into the lake. There had to be an explanation…
*fallen

"Wh-where is my amulet?" Ken shouted, trying to cover up his fear with aggression.
Love him yelling about the amulet that made him feel safe and now it's gone. (I do find it kind of unnecessary to specify "trying to cover up his fear with aggression" - I think you've shown this perfectly effectively without having to spell it out!)

“It’s always like this!” Vera shouted. “I dare to suggest a different point of view, and you just pounce on me immediately to correct that mistake!”
I saw windskull also poked at this line - I think the "to correct that mistake" specifically feels a little stilted. It might read better if you just removed it and left it at "...and you just pounce on me immediately"?

Ken looked over the edge. Vera’s body lie meters below, unmoving.
*lay

It was silent there, and it was silent in Ken’s mind. Silent and bright as the day around them.
Love this line a lot.

At least he still had Chip.

Oh, wait.
Something about using "Oh, wait" here hits me as kind of comical in a way that runs a bit counter to the mood at the end, I think.

Anyway, I enjoyed giving this another read - definitely a fic worth a second read-through. Apologies for the lengthy rambling, hope some of it has added more insight into what I was thinking and/or otherwise helped!
 

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I just love the characterization of Ken here and how his PoV constantly paints himself in a good light all the way through the story. Justifies himself in a positive light throughout it all, very much views himself as a hero. Even from the beginning, the best take scenario a reader can take from his situation is that he's murdering innocent people for the crimes of a few. Then the twist at the end. I suspected he may have more of a blame in Vera's disappearance, but then...apparently he's just a horrible person beforehand who hates ghosts for little reason. And he doubled down on his bigotry just so he could avoid feeling guilt over the death of his wife. This is just the chef's kiss of fuck this guy.

I feel like there's a prime point for the story compression between the arrival of Vera and the ending. From a practical standpoint, the ghosts would have wanted to work their illusions for no longer than needed; I feel like they could have gotten Ken to chase after Vera sooner than they did in-story. I also feel like tightening would have only helped the story.
 

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Hm.. Vera’s little aura and optimism seems a kinda foreshadowing.. or rather the halo effect of the light on her…



Ah, so flashback dream… like how you have reality poke in the “five years” warning shot before it all goes downhill from there.

I wonder I chip’s a service animal at this point…

Huh nice contrast. Ken’s dealing wih the loss of his wife… from the hands of a ghost mon of course any appearance of them on the news would be a normal event/curiosity for the people without his trauma, but for him, it’s like seeing the brother of a mass murder who offed someone you care for make mayor.

I doubt ken’s going to be a reliable narrator from here on out dealing with ribbon tail anything… but strictly off the POVs beaten path I have to admit a troupe of ghosties makes me think of the “Grimm Troupe” from hollow knight, unsettling, perhaps benign, perhaps not, but definitely alien and a little showy for it, and possibly a bit cute…

But then I like ghost types… so that’s just me.

And on the evening news “angry old man and his umbreon are caught stalking and terrorizing both ghosts and a craft shop for some reason… more at ten”

Tips head as Ken’s stockpile builds up and is applied… This man is going to clatter down the street, isn’t he? like a wind chime?

So calm mind dims chips… ah… darkness of is aura for being a dark type? A mental cameoflauge (I’m imagining iron tower from DND psionic handbook) of sorts that's an interesting take on it…

Mean look anyone? Though Mis’ ping pong is rather amusing.

Seriously he needs to give that ‘mon a pair of muffs next time they do this as a precaution, post spoiling…

And… I’m guessing that was either perish song or… a fake-out attack or some type that was a bit alarming. I like how we don’t really get an idea of what the attacks are (they aren’t listed by name) but rather we see the effects and get to figure it out ourselves… it’s a nice touch…

Hm I’m suspicious and I’m surprised that Ken was able to hold off his knee-jerk reaction to be properly paranoid this is looking interesting to see how this pans out…


His narrative seems a bit creepy, putting things as they should be… if this is her she's a person and not a thing… and it’s a nice nod to his instability of him having thought it…

And this is the part where you grit your teeth and possibly thank the mis’ that pulled the water spirit away from holding her hostage… though the situation is murky enough to that that might not be one hundred percent the right reaction…

Ken's flight, to the lake, following chip whose chasing who knows what… to that setting. And Vera followed… yeah this looks like a prime example of disaster dominoes kicking in…

And the first fall “vera”, her truth that pokes the biggest hole into Ken’s tale, and her breaking down into nothingness… And chip’s passing, guess it wasn’t a fake-out after all… Well not passing per say… but his realness in the later section…

I’d say it’s less the wraiths took her and Kens’ wraith did it… sorry I couldn’t resist the pun…

Huh I wonder if it will stick though. After all he’s lost more to them, his illusions and defense mechanism, his companion, and to the truly rigid… the dogged, it’s more fuel to the fire once the pain abates… I’d vote even odds for him to either dig himself deeper once the scare dies down or if he just sinks and mires in a depressive state…

If you’d had plans to continue how would you have handled it?

Well thanks for sharing this piece, it was a fun read.
 
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