Zach tries to go to the grocery store and winds up at a mysterious festival instead without another soul in sight.
Tales From Switch City
Switch city: a strange place built on a Nexus between worlds.
There are an infinite number of universes and timelines, and an infinite number of versions of yourself. Under normal conditions you would remain oblivious to these other timelines, unable to ever enter or witness them. But, where there is a nexus, and the walls between realities are thin, it is possible to cross over even without knowing it.
These events are called reality shifts, and occur quite often, yet most people don’t even notice it, for many timelines are quite similar. For example, you may crossover into a timeline where back in the third grade your favorite color was red instead of blue. A difference between your realities to be sure, but one that may not have had any major impact on your life, and as a result nothing would be discernibly different when you entered your new reality. However, some timelines are radically different. Some have magic, some have advanced technology, and some are so distinct that your imagination could not even conceive of their very nature. And so, sometimes you may find yourself in a reality that is unfamiliar, with rules that don’t make any sense, and there is seldom an easy way back.
Zach was a young man with messy pale brown hair, sporting smart glasses on his face, and dressed comfortably in a hoodie and jeans. Today he was simply running to the grocery store. A very mundane task that suddenly became anything but. Zach had no way of knowing that a reality shift had occurred, but it was clear there was a problem when the asphalt roads were suddenly replaced by dirt roads and the grocery store that should have been just around the bend was replaced by some kind of festival.
His first assumption was that he had somehow turned onto the wrong road, and simply wound up at some local fairgrounds instead of the store. But as he looked through his rearview mirror of his car, he saw a thick forest behind him that he had not driven through on his way here. It was highly doubtful that he would have driven straight through the woods without noticing. Though he might occasionally get lost in his thoughts, no one was that absent minded. So what was the logical conclusion? Was this a dream, or maybe a stress induced vision? Who could say? Either way this clearly wasn’t the grocery store.
He decided the best thing to do would be to try to drive back the way he had come in the hope that he might see something familiar. But, as he shifted his car into reverse, the engine stalled and refused to work. Then all the electronic displays in his car turned off. It was as if everything in the car had died all at once, leaving him stranded here.
He pulled out his cell phone to try to call his roommate to come pick him up. It would likely be a challenge to explain where he was, since he didn’t know himself, but it was a challenge he would never have to face. Much like his car, his cell phone was completely dead and would not power on. This was bad, but not impossible to resolve. If there was a festival going on, there had to be people here somewhere, and surely he could find someone who would let him borrow a phone so that he could call and get a ride. Worst cast, they would at least be able to tell him where he was so he could give his roommate accurate directions.
Zach got out of the car and walked into the festival grounds. Rather than aisles of groceries, there were various food stands. In place of the produce section, he could see rows of carnival games. And where the store’s ‘Employee Only’ stock rooms should be was instead stages for various shows. Yet, despite the fact that there was obviously an ongoing festival, there was not a soul to be found except for Zach himself. He was greeted by the alluring aroma of delicious food. There were all kinds of different dishes many he did not recognize but it was clear most of them seem to be of Asian origin. He saw plenty of stands selling various forms of noodles and rice including ramen as well as dumplings and mochi based sweets. The scent was heavenly and torturous at the same time. He suddenly felt as if he was starving and the food became the most tempting thing in the world.
“Hello?” He called out as he looked around the stands. “Is anyone here? Is someone running any of these stands?” Zach’s question was met with only silence. There was no one to purchase food from, and yet all the food was freshly made as if it was sitting there just for him to eat.
The lack of people around was unsettling to say the least. Despite the fact that he could not see anyone, he couldn’t shake the feeling that he was being watched. He felt the hair stand up on the back of his neck, but the allure of the food seemed to be overpowering his hesitation. It was almost as if it was magically beckoning him to eat it.
“Nope!” He exclaimed as he turned around and started to walk back towards his car. People did not just stumble across empty festivals with food made just for them. He’d seen this movie before. With no idea what this was, or why it was here, it would be a violation of the most basic rules of common sense to just eat food simply sitting out. For all he knew, the food could be poisonous or drugged in some manner. Even if it wasn’t, the food couldn’t possibly be intended for him. He wasn’t a thief, and he was too smart to fall for some nefarious plot.
As he made his way back to the car, the trees surrounding him began to wrestle and sway. Something was coming. He tried to quickly get into his car but found that the doors had somehow locked themselves. That would, of course, be ridiculous, so he thought he must have just hit the lock button on his fob by instinct when he left it. Strange that it still worked while everything else in the car had failed, but maybe that meant his car wasn’t completely dead. He might even be able to get it going and get out of here, wherever ‘here’ was. However, as he pressed the unlock button, the doors refused to unlock. So the key fob was also dead. Well, he still had the key!. He quickly placed that into the door handle and turned… and it snapped in half.
“Oh come on! That doesn’t even make sense!” Zach threw his hands up in the air in disbelief. There hadn’t even been any resistance when he turned it, it simply snapped inside the lock. Now he was going to need a lockpick to come out, or get the car towed! This was unbelievable. No, something strange was clearly going on. He reconsidered his earlier thought that this might be a dream, but everything felt so real. As if the problem with his car wasn’t bad enough, the rustling from the trees was getting louder. Whatever was out there was getting closer. Zach continued to try to turn the remnants of the key in the lock, pulling on the car handle to try and open the car, but it wouldn’t work. Should he run? Hide? If so, where could he even go? Behind his car was far too obvious, and it wasn’t as if the festival stands were going to provide any better cover. He briefly considered smashing his window when out of the blue, they arrived.
Several pointed ears popped out of the brush cheering in voices that Zach could understand. The strangest part was that he knew that they were not speaking English, and yet somehow he was able to understand their foreign words. “You’re the first mortal in over two centuries to pass this test.” A golden fox with nine tails spoke as it walked out of the brush in front of the others and approached him. “For your ability to resist the temptation of taking that which belongs to the spirits, you deserve a reward.”
“Talking… foxes….” Zach muttered, as he stared at the golden fox in front of him. Specifically, he was focused on its nine luxurious tails. “So fluffy…” Without another thought in his head, he reached out a hand to try to pet one of the captivating, soft-looking appendages.
“Ah yes, they are remarkable, and quite fluffy.” The fox responded, clearly amused by the situation. He allowed Zach to touch one of his tails without resisting. “It was our intention to invite you to partake of the feast with us, and join in our celebrations as a reward for your temperance. But, based on your reaction, I suspect there is a different reward that you might find suitable.”
Zach felt a gentle, comforting warmth flow from the tail he was touching. It traveled through his hand and into his entire body as easily as water flows gently down a stream. In moments, it almost felt like his body was covered in a soft, warm, fur coat. It was at this point that he realized that the clothing he was wearing was starting to feel uncomfortable and itchy. He looked down at himself. The sensation of being covered in fur wasn’t just internal; he literally was covered in fur now, or at least starting to be. Brown fur was growing in patches all across his body, making his clothing more and more uncomfortable. Without thinking, he quickly took off his shirt and breathed a sigh of relief as some of the discomfort was relieved. In his shoes, however, was where he was experiencing he most unpleasantness. It was almost painful.
He quickly dropped to the ground and pulled his shoes off just in time to see a set of small, sharp claws rip through the edges of his socks. He attempted to remove them, but they couldn’t maintain their structure as his feet were now changing shape. They were extending, covered in brown fur, and, surprising absolutely no one, and to many a people’s delight, he had cute little toe beans!. It wasn’t difficult to figure out what was going on at this point. While some people might have been terrified by the fact they were turning into some kind of animal, and others might have gone into denial, all Zach could feel was a sense of ecstasy.
Having a pretty good idea of what was going to come next, Zach quickly pulled his remaining clothing off. The lower half of his body had already finished covering itself in fur, and now the tip of his tailbone was extending outward, rapidly forming into a tail. With a quiet ‘fwish’, the single tail split into three, which then all in turn split into three more, giving him a total of nine tails. Rushing upward from the base, the fur filled in thick on each and every one,making it just as fluffy as the kitsune before him.
It was at this point that Zach’s glasses fell right off of his face. He tried to catch them, but as he extended his hands he saw that they were hands no more. He was instead flexing vulpine paws without opposable thumbs. Without a way to actually manipulate them and put them back on, they simply fell to the dirt, leaving him wondering why they had even fallen off in the first place. As he reached his new paws up to touch his face, the answer came quickly. In fact, he was surprised he hadn’t noticed it sooner! The front of his face had pushed out into a long, pointed snout which intruded into his vision. There was no doubt what had caused them to be pushed off of his face. As he further inspected his changes, he also found that his ears were not where they should have been. Instead, they were now much larger, triangular in shape and had relocated themselves to the top of his head.
The changes were complete.
From an outside perspective, there was no trace of humanity left in Zach, other than his blue irises. For all intents and purposes, he was now a normal fox. Except, of course, for the fact that he had nine tails.
“Whoa!?” He tried to stand and quickly fell over. His brain had not yet realized that he was quadrupedal, and couldn’t stand on two legs anymore. He readjusted, cautiously trying to stand once more, this time on four legs. “This is so cool…” His nine tails began to swish from side to side, and as he did, a wisp of fire lit on the tip of each tail. He looked astonished as he realized that he had created fox fire, and he focused, bringing his tails together as the motes of fire all joined together into one the size of a basketball. Flashing a mischievous grin, he started to wonder what other magic he could do. But the thought quickly turned to concern as he realized he had no idea how to extinguish the flames.
“Uh, a little help here- I think I might have made a mistake?” He pleaded, looking at the golden kitsune who had granted him this boon.
“Oh dear. Perhaps I was a bit too hasty in my assessment of your initial capabilities.” The golden fox lifted up a paw, quickly pushing it against Zach’s nose. In an instant the fire went out. But not only that, the golden fox appeared to grow larger.
That wasn’t quite correct. Everything around him was getting bigger. But, far more alarming than that was the fact that his tails were slowly disappearing one by one. That wasn’t fair, he liked having multiple tails! Sure, before today he hadn’t even had one, but now he knew the joy of having multiple. With that amount of fluff, he could have curled them up and used them as a bed for a nap if he wanted to. But as he continued to shrink, his tails continued to vanish until he had only a single one left, and he found the golden fox towering over him. He tried to speak up, to object to this gross tail-based injustice, but instead of his complaints, he only produced a series of yips and yaps instead.
“Relax, little one.” The kitsune chuckled. “You’ll get all nine of them back in time.” He curled his own tails around him as he sat on his haunches, looking down at the smaller fox. “It occurred to me that giving a human the power of a fully grown kitsune may have been a slightly daft idea. That is far too much firepower, both literally and metaphorically, without the experience or understanding necessary to make use of it.” He lifted his paw and lightly bapped Zach on his head, “So I reduced your form to that of a kit. You’ve spent, what, twenty summers as a human? That’s basically an infant in our comparatively longer lifespan, so this form is more appropriate. Do not fret, you’ll still be capable of a little bit of magic as you are now, but we won’t have to worry about you accidentally burning down the entire forest.”
“Yip?” Zach tilted his head. The explanation was actually calming. The idea of being a young kit, rather than an adult, was one he found appealing on further consideration. Sure, it came with less magic, but it also meant less responsibility. And, echoing that sentiment, it meant that he could play more. Speaking of play, he wasn’t sure if it was all the excitement of the various changes he just underwent, but he found that he had an abundance of energy and needed desperately to expend it on something. He could chase his own tail, but the nine, shifting tails of the golden fox were much more alluring. He swayed his tail rapidly back and forth, crouching low against the grass… before he pounced onto the golden foxes’ tails, wriggling around and biting at them!
“H-hey!” The gold fox stammered, “not so hard. You may be a kit, but your teeth are sharp!” Despite his words, the amusement was obvious in the golden fox’s voice. He began to shift and sway his tails around to intentionally tease the young fox making a game out of it, so that Zach had to work for his newfound prey.
“Roawr!” Zach gave a playful growl as he continued to chase the golden fox’s tails. Somehow, this simple little game was more fun than any video game or other hobby he had engaged in in his entire life. Maybe it was just because he was so young, or maybe it was simply that tails were just that awesome.
“Quite the playful little scamp aren’t you?” The golden fox asked amusedly. “Well, it’s good to see you take to your new form so naturally, rather than sulk about it. You know, the humans who fail the test, we punish by turning them into small animals. As mice, squirrels, or other small creatures, they then must participate in games and races during the festival. We place bets on who will win. It’s all rather good fun. They get changed back after the festival is over, of course, we’re not monsters.” The golden fox grinned as he continued to watch the kit continue to chase after his tails, nearly pinning one to the ground.
He continued, bemusedly, “Of course, you might be the first human we’ve actually gifted our form to in, hmmm, well, longer than I can remember. And, well, I’m a couple thousand years old. We normally allow those gracious enough to honor the spirits to participate in the festival as a guest, rather than an attraction. But you seemed so fascinated with my tails, I thought you might enjoy some of your own.” He was so caught up in his story that he hadn’t noticed the small kit even once transfixed on anything other than chasing his tails around. “Hey, small one, are you paying attention to me?”
“Yip?” Zach paused from his play to look up at the golden fox with curiosity.
“Heh.” The fox chuckled, resuming his expository history lesson. “ No doubt you’re wondering when you’ll have more tails again.” He splayed his own out as if making a point, “Many of us get our second tail around the time that we turn about a century old.” He held up a paw and flexed a single digit to once again make a point. “However, for us kitsune, our age is not actually tied to the flow of time but to our state of mind. Your age will reflect your demeanor. . Act childish, and you will remain so. Act maturely, and you will gain not only maturity, but more power. I will warn you, some never grow old enough to gain a second tail, though that is usually by choice. If that is yours, we will respect it. That being said, since you were already an adult, for a human, you could rapidly grow as you learn our ways and train to control your new powers.”
“Roawr!” Zach gave another playful growl and pounced on one of the gold fox’s tais while he was distracted. He had tried to listen to most of what the other fox had told him. His big take away was that he never had to grow up as long as he didn’t act like a grown up. And that definitely had its appeal, even if it meant that he wouldn’t get all nine fluffy tails.
“Yeouch!” the gold fox shouted, though his grin made it clear that his cry of pain was fake. “Given your current behavior, I’m guessing you’re in no hurry to get back to adulthood. Honestly, that’s probably for the best. After all, the more time you spend as a kit, the more time you have to learn. And you, young one, have a lot to learn before you should have access to all of our power” Though the golden fox had figured out that he was enjoying being young once more, he hadn’t quite caught on that Zach planned on never growing up. That would probably become obvious after a century or two.
“YAP!” Zach gave an impatient bark and looked at the older fox expectantly. The fox had stopped teasing him with his tails and the game wasn’t as much fun anymore.
“Still in the mood to play, eh?” The golden fox barely held back his laughter. “Well, maybe you can play with something that spares my tails from your teeth. After all, there is a festival to attend, and now you can attend it as one of us.” He turned and looked towards the numerous stands just beyond Zach’s now abandoned car, “I’m sure you’d enjoy partaking in many of the games, as well as meeting some of the other fox kits among the clan. So, how about you let go of my tail for a bit and I’ll show you a few wonders?” The golden fox did not wait for a reply. In one swift motion, he turned his body in a circle, moving his tails out of Zach’s reach. Before he could give chase once more, the golden fox bit down gently on his scruff and lifted him into the air.
The young kit squirmed for a bit, but the fox had him good. There was no escaping his grasp. For now. Despite that, Zach could not help but be excited. His little fox kit tail was wagging so fast, it was in danger of coming off. There were just so many things to be excited for. For starters: he was no longer human; that was a huge improvement right there! And, of course, he wasn’t an adult, another huge improvement. Then, throw in the fact that he had been freed from the tyranny of pants, that he didn’t have to grow up again if he didn’t want to, that there was a festival of games and food to enjoy, and that he was going to get to start his new life among this kitsune civilization, and he honestly couldn’t think of a better end to the day! The only real downside to this was that he wouldn’t be able to play video games anymore. But, honestly, while video games were fun they paled in comparison to the simple joy of chasing a tail. On top of that, he was quite certain that once he met kits his own age, he was going to learn so many new games that were fun and exciting. Who knew what mischief that he might get into with his new friends once he learned a bit more about how kitsune magic worked. Even if he was just a tiny little fox kit, he still had a spark of magic. And a spark of magic meant that he could cause a hint of trouble.
He was, in fact, so excited to enter this new life that he forgot about what brought him here in the first place. It never occurred to him that he’d even left his own world, stepping into one where the very rules of the universe had changed. Circumstance had led him to fit in, but the same would apply to the things he brought with him. By the time he returned to next year’s festival, his car would be nothing more than a fern covered boulder.. It wouldn’t even occur to him that the two were one in the same, or that his car had undergone some kind of transfiguration.
And why should he think about such things? This new life, it didn’t matter if it was in a new world or his own, he only knew that it made him happy. The philosophical ramifications of his current situation might be something to keep someone else up at night, but to him, they simply weren’t important. What was important was that he was able to enjoy his life to the fullest.
And he chose to do just that.