A fairy tale inspired by the video game OFF, by Mortis Ghost.
Once upon a time…
He was a merchant by trade, and so was inclined to wander. This, he knew, was merely a story; it didn’t matter what brought him here or what had led up to this moment. The fact was that he was here, and that there must be some reason for it, or else he wouldn’t have wandered this way.
So the merchant cheerfully made his way down the road. There was a city ahead, and where there was a city, there were customers. And where there were customers, there were credits to be had. Beneath a smiling paper mask, he whistled. True, he had no say in where he was going, but there was hardly any sense being morose about it.
“My ears, I suspect, have caught some sort of melody. I must say, it has been an inordinate amount of time since I have heard such an optimistic sound, particularly in a place inhabited only by the despondent.”
The merchant looked around as he heard the voice, but there was no one around him. His gaze abruptly shot down as he felt something brush his legs, and he tilted his head in amusement as he saw the white cat.
“Was it you who said that, my friend?” he asked, leaning down to scratch its ears. Its head pushed against his hand with a purr, revealing a mouth stretched out into a hideous grin. The merchant didn’t mind; he had seen worse in his travels.
“Indeed,” the cat replied, moving to rub the merchant’s leg again. “While I am, for all intents and purposes, your average feline, I do have the occasional tendency to voice my thoughts.” He sat and absently washed an ear with a chuckle. “I have been told I have an inclination to loquaciousness, though.”
The merchant, well-traveled though he was, had never seen a talking cat. So that was a bit exciting, wasn’t it? Perhaps this story would be a fun one. He smiled beneath his mask and set his pack on the ground, digging inside.
“I think I might have something for you.” He dug for a few moments more, then pulled out a tin can. “Aha! Here we are.” He opened the top, then set the can down. “A bit of food for you. I’ve always been fond of cats, so consider this a gift.”
The cat’s purring grew louder, and he eagerly dug into the food. The merchant sat back on his heels as the cat ate, chancing the occasional stroke of his soft fur; the cat did not object to the attention. Eventually, food finished, the cat sat back and took a few moments to groom himself before looking to the merchant.
“Well, my masked friend, it seems we are at a crucial junction. You have shown me kindness, and now it is time for recompense on my part.”
Aha. He knew what kind of story this was. “You’re sending me on my quest, then,” the merchant said.
“I see my new friend is of an intuitive nature.”
“Naturally. We’re in a story. We do each other a good turn here, and now the strange creature—no offense—gives me the direction to either ruin or fortune.”
The cat’s tail flicked, though more out of curiosity than annoyance. “Well-spotted, merchant.” He stretched, then walked back over to sit beside the merchant. “In that case, allow me to enlighten you as to what you will be encountering posthaste.”
…lived an evil king. His face was so repulsive that he was nicknamed the Toad King.
“The city you see before us is gripped by a vicious monarch. This king has stepped beyond his role, enforcing an iron reign so vindictive and paranoid that any who dare question him is executed with exceptional swiftness. None may leave, few may enter, and the denizens of this miserable husk of a kingdom live in constant fear.
“Indeed, the very wickedness of his actions have rendered his visage horrifically similar to a frog. Outside of his dominion, he is referred to as the “Toad King,” a moniker that will send his majesty into a fit of rage so chimeric that any that dare encounter him are instantly annihilated, without regard for their station or innocence.”
The cat peered up at the merchant, whose eyes, the only visible part of his face, had drifted to the city. He set a paw on the merchant’s knee.
“You may, of course, avoid this city. There are roads that lead elsewhere.”
“Yes…but that would make for an awful story, wouldn’t it?” The merchant stood up and picked up his pack. “Besides, I don’t like the sound of this king. Someone ought to speak with him.”
The cat purred again. “Ah, so I have indeed found an intrepid hero.”
“No. You’ve found a merchant.”
The cat chuckled. “Of course.” He began to walk, the merchant following. “I can take you up to the city gates. After that, I’m afraid, the path you take will be a solitary one.”
“That’s quite all right. I’m used to travelling alone.”
The pair walked in amiable silence for quite some time and it was, unsurprisingly, the cat who spoke first.
“It is, of course, in my species’ nature to pry, so I must ask if your mask is necessary. I’m concerned that it may impede your progress once you enter the desolate city.”
The merchant smiled, though the cat couldn’t see it. “I disagree. Provided you wear the right one, a mask is a wonderful thing for making friends. For instance…” He once again set his pack down, digging out some supplies. A few scribbles on a piece of paper, a few snips off the top, a string expertly threaded through the sides…he knelt his head down and quickly swapped out the masks, allowing no time for his face to be seen. He looked up at the cat, a paper feline face matching his permanent grin. “Now look, I could pass for your brother. Miaou.”
The cat blinked in surprise, ears pressed back, but he relaxed after a moment. “How clever! I’m afraid that position is already occupied, but I am nonetheless impressed. Perhaps your masks will serve you well—though perhaps not that one. After all, there is reason as to why I may only accompany you to the gates.” As the merchant changed masks again, he continued, “Again, my inquisitive nature yearns for answers. Why is it, my mercantile companion, that you wear a mask to begin with?”
The merchant chuckled as he picked up his bag. “That’s not relevant to the story yet. Be patient.”
The cat looked at him with amusement. “And here I thought I was alone in my penchant for mystery.” He sat down as they reached the city gates, tail flicking at even intervals. “And this is as far as I may take you, my friend. You have my most earnest support in your progression, and I do hope to see you at the other side of the city.”
The merchant gave the cat a nod, somewhat sad to see him go, but turned and entered the city gates. He peered around the city. The cat hadn’t been lying; it looked as though a war had been fought in here, with people peeking out suspiciously from ruined houses. So, not many credits to be had here. But it wasn’t like he could leave at this point.
One day, a masked man…
He set his bag down, and with rubble and wood, he constructed a makeshift stall. He leaned against it, smiling mask greeting the one or two people who walked past him. One person, gray and haggard as the surrounding buildings, stopped.
“What are you doing here?” the man asked, eyes darting about. The merchant gestured to the knick-knacks on his stall.
“I’m selling things. If you have some credits, I’d be willing to work something out.”
The man scoffed. “We’ve no use for swindlers like you here.” He left.
The merchant waited.
Next came a woman. She might have been pretty if, like the man, she wasn’t so gray and haggard. She looked at him with fearful eyes.
“What kind of useless mess is this?” she asked.
“I’m actually quite necessary. Every city needs a shop,” the merchant replied serenely.
“You’ll be arrested!” she cried, and quickly hurried away.
The merchant waited.
Finally, another man walked by. This one wore a badge, and he looked at the merchant with hateful eyes. “Outsiders are not allowed to bring their business inside the city,” he said harshly.
The merchant snapped his fingers. “Oh, of course. One second, officer.” He knelt down and dug in his pack. After a few moments, he popped up again, now with a mask as gray and haggard as the citizen’s faces. “But as you can see, I’m no outsider.”
The officer blinked and stepped back, but seeing the merchant’s face, of course there was no crime. He huffed. “Even so, be sure you get your proper registration. All new businesses must go through the king.” He walked away quickly.
So. Here was his chance.
…met the king during an audience.
It happened that the king was holding an audience with the people today. That, of course, was frightfully good luck, but the merchant remembered that he was in a story. With his pack secured on his back, he made his way to the town square.
The king was, indeed, hideous. His girth barely fit on the ornate throne—the only thing in the square that was not gray and broken—and his cruel mouth stretched across his bloated face. Beady eyes that couldn’t quite focus glared out at the sea of people ahead.
Really, he did look a lot like a toad.
The merchant made his way through the crowd; no easy task with the massive bag on his back. He stopped as the king began to speak.
“My loyal subjects,” he called, voice wet and mushy as it boomed against ruined walls, “bound to me by patriotism and love, I fear that I have found a traitor amongst you. This is why this audience has been called; like a father, a good and loving king must remind his people that goodness is rewarded, but wickedness is punished. And so, I bring out this wicked rebel, who had planned my own death in order to launch our wonderful city into anarchy!”
Behind his mask, the merchant’s eyes widened as a person, as gray and haggard as all the others, was brought onto the stage. She looked very small compared to the Toad King, but her face was blank. The king heaved himself up.
“And now you all shall see what the wicked reap! The just punishment of those who conspire against me!”
He opened his mouth wide, far wider than he should have been able to, and the two guards on either side of the woman lifted her up. She was set easily in the king’s gaping maw. He shut his mouth with a sickening crunch and a slurping swallow.
Now, then, that was quite enough.
The merchant, naturally, had something in his bag for a situation like this.
He said the following words to him: “Greetings, wretched monarch…”
The merchant pushed his way forward, pack left behind him and a gleaming sword in one hand. He couldn’t tell you why he had it, but convenience in a story was far better than reason. In his other hand, he held paper, string, and a marker.
“Greetings, wretched monarch!” he called above the people. “I have need for an audience with you!”
The king, mopping his mouth after a burp, looked around with wild eyes. “Who is saying that? Who speaks out of turn in my kingdom?”
“None but a humble merchant!” the merchant replied, pushing his way past the last row of people. He held his sword in front of him.
“…leave this land at once, or perish by the tip of my blade.”
The king sputtered at the sight of the sword. “You…you…”
“I have seen enough to know that you are anything but a noble and loving king,” the merchant said. “So leave this land at once, or perish by the tip of my blade!”
“Guards! Seize this…this assassin!”
Soon enough, the merchant was surrounded by guards. Not wanting to spill innocent blood, he didn’t slay them. It wasn’t as though that would help the story. Instead, he willingly let himself be brought up to the stage.
“Drop your weapon,” the king spat as the merchant was brought forward. He obliged; the sword fell with a clatter.
The King replied: “I am the king, and you are my subjects. You are not to go against my will.”
The king turned to look at the people crowded in the square. “As you all can see, another one of you has risen up against me! This one has gone beyond the scope of mere speculation, and has actively threatened my life. Again, I remind you, my people, that I am the king and you are my subjects! What I have in mind is the best for you and your home! You are not to go against my will!”
As the king spoke, the merchant freed his arms from the guards—they weren’t holding him very tightly; if the poor woman earlier was any indication, most citizens met their fate without a fight. He scribbled on the paper, threaded the string through it, then knelt his head down as he swapped out his masks. He stood up straight.
“But I am no citizen!” he called to the king. “Rather, I am the king himself!”
Indeed, the merchant’s mask now resembled a frog. The guards stepped back in fear; to think, they had apprehended the king! The king sputtered in shock.
“That’s not me, you idiots! That is the assassin!” he screeched to his guards, but none replied. How were they able to tell who the real king was? Both looked like toads! They didn’t want to take the risk.
The merchant picked up his sword and stepped forward. He tilted his head at the Toad King, who continued crying for help.
“You and I really aren’t all that different,” he said, cutting the king’s pleas short. “We’re both repulsive to look at. But I have the decency to wear a mask.” He lifted up his sword. “That’s why I’m the hero of this story.”
And so the Masked Man slew the King with his mighty sword.
The blade sank deep into the king, too deep for the merchant to be able to pull it out. He stepped back as the king flailed, blood seeping into his spit and spraying at the horrified crowd. The merchant quickly jumped off the stage and grabbed his pack. A wanderer like himself knew when it was time to leave.
He debated pulling off the mask and showing the town his own hideous face, to give some lesson about how the hero can be just as ugly as the villain. But the story was over, and his role was complete. It was time to wander somewhere else.
Amidst the pandemonium, he slipped out of the town gates. The cries of horror from the town faded as he walked, and a white cat soon bumped up against his leg.
“I see your visage has once again transformed,” the cat said, grinning up at the merchant. “It looks to me that it is a token of your success, hero.”
The merchant adjusted the bag on his back. “It was a means to an end. But I do think it suits me.”
The cat sat down, prompting him to stop. “And where is it that your story guides you now?”
The merchant shrugged. “Nowhere. My time as the protagonist is finished. I think that now I’ll just be a necessary merchant somewhere else.”
The cat’s tail flicked. “Well, if the offer sounds tempting, my usual residence is, in fact, in need of a merchant before the next protagonist arrives. It’s a far walk from here, unfortunately. Cats, you know, enjoy wandering far from home, but I am quite exhausted and ready to see my brother.”
The merchant smiled beneath his mask and knelt down to scratch the cat’s ears. “I don’t see why I shouldn’t. Where do you live?”
“The wide world I live in has no real name, but my pocket of dominion is referred to as Zone 0.”
The merchant’s head tilted. “I’ve heard of it. Someone I know lives there.”
“Ah? May I inquire as to whom?”
“It’s not relevant to this story.” Carefully, he picked up the cat, setting him on his shoulder. “And what should I call you?” he asked as the cat climbed up to the top of his pack.
“I am commonly referred to as The Judge. You will certainly need a similar moniker should you decide to stay with me.” The cat—the Judge—purred as he kneaded the top of the bag. “Perhaps the Hero?”
The merchant laughed. “Definitely not.”
“The Merchant, then?”
“I’ve been that for far too long.” The merchant began to walk along the road, looking up at the Judge. “I think it’s high time I’m referred to by my name. Call me Zacharie.”
The Judge looked down at him curiously. “If we are completely shedding formality and tradition, then I suppose it is only fair that I return the gesture willingly.” He stretched and yawned, maintaining perfect balance as only cats can, and curled up on the pack. “My name is Pablo. Since it is clear that we have progressed from mere amiable companionship to what would appear to be friendship, it is only natural that you refer to me as such.”
Zacharie smiled beneath his mask, and he reached up and behind him to scratch Pablo’s ears before following the road ahead.
Well, that had been fun. Now on to the next work of fiction.
He’d always thought it’d be interesting to be in a video game.