Steel drags Shasta into the basement of an abandoned classroom building, hoping to figure out why the place was abandoned and forgotten. Instead, they find one of the many mirrors that acts as a portal to the regressive world Springtide.
New Pups in Town
“I’m supposed to be getting to class.” Shasta complained as he was dragged through the hallway of a classroom building that was meant to be under renovation. The gray and blue wolfamute was dressed in a simple hoodie and jeans. “I’m not really sure I can afford to be missing class with exams just around the corner.
“This is worth missing class over.” Steel replied. He was a silver furred wolf, dressed in long pants, a t-shirt and a red coat. “I found the weirdest thing in the basement here.”
“Why were you in the basement here anyway?” Shasta asked. The lights were turned off, and some parts of the building that were under construction were cut off by giant curtains. He had never realized how creepy an empty university building was before. Then again, he had never been in one while it was empty before. Only when there was the hustle and bustle of students moving throughout the hall.
“Because I was exploring, obviously.” Steel remarked. “I mean, come on there’s a creepy old building on campus, it’s been under renovations for over fifty years, and you’re not curious about it?”
“Wait have they really been rebuilding this place for that long?” Shasta asked.
“Yup.” Steel nodded. “And get this, there’s no information on the university’s web site about what kind of classes or research this building was dedicated too. Just, was abruptly closed down fifty years ago, and then just been sitting here. They say it’s under renovations over safety concerns, but there’s never any construction equipment. It’s as if the university has completely abandoned this building. Maybe it’s haunted.” Steel grinned.
“D-don’t say things like that.” Shasta complained.
“Only considering a possibility.” Steel replied with a grin. “But, after I failed to turn up anything online, I went to every library on campus. There were some books listed as having been written by professors who researched something in the classroom… But all of them are missing from the library. And someone had taken a sharpie to mark out all the titles of the books.”
“Then how did you know who wrote them?” Shasta gave Steel a deadpan look.
“Because I do my research, obviously.” Steel explained as if it was obvious. “That and on my first trip here, I found some nameplates of former staff members. Found the books when I looked up their names in the library.”
“Wait you said they were former faculty members? They get fired or something?”
“No idea, no record. They just existed and then they didn’t.” Steel grinned.
“Okay! Seriously! Why are we here? Why were you even here in the first place!?” Shasta’s fur stood on end. “Everything about this sounds like the setup to a horror movie right before the monster shows up and starts killing people.”
“There’s no such things as monsters.” Steel crossed his arms. “Probably. Remains to be seen. But how could you not want to explore this place? The entire thing is one giant mystery. Of course, I want to check it out.”
“How did you even learn about this place anyway?” Shasta asked.
“I walk past it every day on my way to Calculus.” Steel explained with a shrug. “Eventually I noticed that no one ever seemed to be going in or out of the place. After observing the building more, discovered it didn’t have any signs or indicators of what the place was called. I got curious, one thing led to another, and before you knew it I had a huge mystery to unravel.”
“And you dragged me here because?” It wasn’t that Shasta was a coward. It was just that he had enough common sense to think that hanging out in a building that had been abandoned for fifty years for unknown reasons and that it might be in bad enough shape to start falling apart at any moment was a bad idea. Then everything Steel on top of that just made this sound like an even worse place to be.
“Because I found something!” Steel grinned. “I don’t know if it’s related to why everything is abandoned or not. But it’s definitely weird.” Steel stopped as he reached the door leading to the basement stairs. He began to push against it. There was a creaking noise that echoed throughout the entire place. “Little help? The rust is really bad on these. Think it took me a solid ten minutes to force it open last time.”
“You really spent ten minutes pushing on a door?” Shasta looked at Steel curiously.
“I don’t know!” Steel tossed up his hands. “It’s not like I actually counted. It could have been a hyperbole. Just help me push this open already.”
“Okay…” Shasta aided Steel against his better judgement. Between the two of them, the door was finally open, and was soon stuck in place, the bottom of the door scraping the concrete floor of the basement stairs.
“We’re almost there.” Steel replied happily.
“Hey Steel… You said this place was abandoned.” Shasta muttered.
“Yeah and?” Steel asked.
“Well…” Shasta pointed at the doors which were stuck in place. “Who closed the doors after you left?”
“Um…” For the first time Steel was at a loss for an explanation. The doors should have been stuck open. “Maybe… The door very slowly closed over time?”
“Gosh darn it.” Shasta knew something about this place wasn’t right. “I knew coming here was a bad idea. Look let’s just get out of here while we can.”
“When we’re almost there?” Steel asked as he quickly ran down the stairs leaving Shasta behind.
“And there he goes.” Shasta gave a sigh. He looked around the empty halls. He thought he heard something in the distance. It was… Probably best he didn’t let Steel get too far ahead on his own. “H-hey slow down!” Shasta started down the stairs after Steel.
After all the buildup, what awaited them in the basement was surprisingly mundane. The entire place was just one giant storage room. Sure, with plenty of objects covered in white curtains, and the entire place covered in dust and cobwebs it certainly felt spooky. But at the end of the day, it was just storage space. Part of Shasta had expected they were going to find the lab of a mad scientist or something.
“This is it?” He asked.
“Yes and no.” Steel began to look around the basement, lifting different white curtains to see what was under them. “The room isn’t important, it’s what I found in it.” He growled. “But it’s dark down here and everything looks the same so I’m having a hard time finding it a second time.”
“What are you looking for?” Shasta lifted up a white tarp near him. Beneath it was just an old antique desk.
“A mirror.” Steel explained. “Really big one too. Like, it’s probably about seven feet tall and three feet wide.”
“Okay… That’s a big mirror I’ll admit.” Shasta bit his lip. Steel was obviously holding back some information. They couldn’t be down here just to see a mirror. “There’s probably more than one down here, how do I know if I found the right one.”
“You’ll know.” Steel responded without paying attention, as he continued the search of the room.”
“Well, that’s not ominous at all.” Shasta felt his shoulders sag. Still, he reminded himself that regardless of this place’s history, it was still just an old classroom building. There was no reason to be nervous about. Well, except for the fact it was old and derelict and could collapse upon them at any second. Actually, that was a very valid fear and very good reason for them to leave now.
But, Steel just wasn’t one to let things like this go. If there was something strange that Steel didn’t know about of course he was going to throw an unhealthy amount of time into looking into it. The second there was even the slightest whiff of there being something unnatural about the entire situation all hopes of Steel losing interest and leaving it alone. The fastest way Shasta could get him out of here right now was to just find whatever mirror this was Steel was looking for. He began to move between aisles of old junk and furniture. A mirror as big as Steel described would stand out. Something that tall, even with a tarp over it was going to be hard to miss. As Shasta didn’t see anything near the middle of the basement that was nearly tall enough, that meant it had to be up against one of the walls or something.
It would turn out, there were a few other tall items in the room as Shasta circled the room following the wall. Plenty of bookshelves, a really tall lamp, a giant pile of books that probably could have fit on the earlier shelves. When he made it about halfway around the room he finally found a mirror. Shasta lifted the edge of the tarp, seeing the reflective surface of it then pulled the entire tarp off.
The mirror was indeed just as big as Steel had described it. But that was maybe the least impressive thing about it. The edges of it looked like they were made of intertwining gold and silver. Shasta couldn’t help but wonder if it was real gold, or just some form of plating. At the top of the frame, above the mirror the frame curved upward forming into two points, tipped with green emeralds.
And none of these facts were stuck in Shasta’s head long. Because what was reflected in the mirror was the only thing he could look at.
It was his own reflection. But not as he knew it. Shasta was old enough to be in college, whereas his reflection looked like a two-year-old toddler. They were wearing the same outfit, though ‘wearing’ might not have quite been the right term for his reflection. The smaller Shasta was closer to swimming in Shasta’s clothes than anything else. Other than the age, and the clothes not fitting, the reflection copied Shasta exactly. When Shasta stared at it with a shocked expression, the reflection stared back. As Shasta took a couple steps back, so did the reflection, although it stumbled a bit over its giant clothing. Shasta slowly brought up a hand to reach out to the mirror and his reflection began to reach out towards him.
“You found it!” Steel appeared behind Shasta, catching the wolfamute off guard.
“GAH!” Shasta turned away from the mirror. “Don’t just pop up behind people like that.”
“Was that really popping up?” Steel looked thoughtful. “I mean we were both looking for this thing. Anyway, you’re seeing it too, right? I wanted to bring someone else down here to make sure it wasn’t just me.”
“You mean the fact my reflection is younger?” Shasta looked back into the mirror. Now that Steel was standing next to him, he was also reflected. Much like Shasta, the silver wolf was just a two-year-old pup in the mirror, tripping around in the clothing Steel was wearing. “That’s… Why is it doing that?”
“Magic?” Steel fathomed a guess. “I mean I can’t really think of any other explanations.”
“Maybe…” Shasta sounded uncertain. It wasn’t that he hadn’t had experiences with magic before. In fact, ever since he went on that stupid TV show it felt like he had been having encounters with it nonstop. It was like the second you acknowledged magic’s existence that it declared free game on you to mess with your life. “We’re not going to turn into little kids standing in front of the mirror are we?” Shasta couldn’t help but remember his time on the TV show. And the events of last April. And when he had visited a certain treehouse three weeks ago. At least he had always managed to get back to his normal age. Maybe. He was pretty sure college aged was probably normal.
“Nothing happened to me last time.” Steel shrugged. “But what do you think it’s for?”
“Not sure.” Shasta crossed his arms. “I mean, I don’t even know if the university somehow made this thing or just found it. It’s possible it’s some magical oddity they were researching and then…” Shasta had a thought. Magic seemed pretty commonplace to anyone who had encountered it. But some people never did, and wouldn’t believe in it. Maybe this entire classroom building had been dedicated to the research of magic and magical artifacts. Eventually, someone was put in charge who had never encountered and thus didn’t believe in magic, the entire building gets shut down and everyone forgets about it. If that was the case though… That could mean anything in the building was magical.
And suddenly, the basement became a lot more intimidating in Shasta’s mind. Previously he had been able to tell himself that he was just imagining things, and it was just a normal storage room. But now, who knew what other things were around here. What would be cursed, what might be dangerous. It was certainly fascinating seeing himself so young, but he could always watch the reruns of the show because of course his mother had made tapes.
“We should get out of here.” Shasta muttered. “If there’s a magic mirror there can be other stuff in here. Best not to stay.”
“Isn’t that even more of a reason to stay?” Steel asked. “This entire place is just forgotten but then we find some kind of weird magic kiddy mirror. Why was it just left here?”
“Well, most likely someone was put in charge of the university who didn’t believe magic was real so simply shut down the building.” Shasta stated his theory out lout, it made him feel more confident.
“Would they just shut things down outright though?” Steel asked. “I mean if that’s the case, why is it supposedly under renovation? Maybe something happened. Something that either made people forget, or made them want to.”
“So, you think there was some kind of supernatural incident that messed the place up?” Shasta gave Steel a questioning look. “Isn’t that an even bigger reason not to be here. Come on, have you seen any horror movie ever?”
“Look, since when does a horror movie start with a mirror that shows cutesy baby images of the people who look in it?” Steel asked.
“I mean, that’s not usually how most movies start out.” Shasta rubbed the back of his head. “But I can think of a few horror books that had a similar concept with youth. Usually involving clocks. But it’s not the mirror I’m worried about. It’s what other magical things might be in this basement.”
“Maybe we can try to get the mirror out of the basement then?” Steel suggested.
“That thing looks like it weighs a ton.” Shasta muttered.
“It would take both of us working together. Maybe a dolly.” Steel looked thoughtful as he grabbed the edge of the mirror and gripped it by the frame. “We don’t actually know how heavy it is…” He tried to push on it to get an idea of its weight. It was heavier than expected. It was going to take more than just him and Shasta working together to move it. The dolly idea would probably still work though.
“Um Steel…” Shasta sounded shocked.
“Was just checking how heavy it was.” Steel explained.
“Yes but your fingers.” Shasta explained.
“What about-“ Steel paused. As he had gripped the mirror frame his fingers should have been resting against the surface of the mirror. Instead, they had passed right through the mirror without resistance and so he was gripping the mirror from inside. “Well that didn’t happen last time.”
“Did you touch it last time?” Shasta asked, realizing that he had almost touched the mirror himself. What would have happened. Would he have fallen through?
“No but…” Steel let go and stood in front of the mirror. He slowly reached a hand out and stuck his entire arm through. After a few moments he pulled it back out. He was unharmed. “Huh.”
“You know, it’s kind of amazing more weird stuff doesn’t happen to you just doing things like that.” Shasta chided Steel. Still, he couldn’t help but be curious. “So. What was it like?”
“Warm.” Steel replied. “Though… Also a bit weird, like my sleeve didn’t fit right.”
“I can think of a reason for that…” Shasta eyed the two-year-old puppies in the mirror. He had an idea of at least one thing that it might do. But there was the question of if that was the only purpose or not…
“Still see nothing bad happened.” Steel grinned. “Come on you try.” He grabbed Shasta’s arm and jerked it towards the mirror.
“H-hey!” Shasta was caught off guard by this. He had been lost in thought thinking about the purpose of the mirror. He stumbled forward as he was jerked, and bumped into Steel. Steel lost his own footing as he had been pulling Shasta towards the mirror, and then both canines tripped, and tumbled straight through the mirror, disappearing through its surface with no resistance whatsoever. With them gone, the mirror now reflected nothing more than the empty room around it. Shasta and Steel had disappeared.
“Uggggh.” Shasta groaned as he landed on his back. He was looking up at the sky. He was outdoors now. The sunlight was pleasantly warm, without being harsh. And the grass he was laying in was incredibly soft. A few shadows were cast over him, coming from a large oak tree nearby. Shasta slowly sat up and felt his clothing fall in a pile around him. He looked down at himself. His body was the same body he had seen in the mirror. He had gone from college aged all the way back to a mere two years old in an instant. “Gosh darn it.”
“Shasta that you?” Steel asked. “Your voice is so high pitched.” Steel had landed nearby. Much like Shasta, he had been reduced to a two-year-old pup. He tried to stand up, losing his pants in the process, and managed to keep his shirt on, though it was more like a blanket.
“You know as often as this happens to me you’d think I’d have a plan for this kind of stuff by now.” Shasta whined. He remained sitting and looked around. There was a huge meadow filled with flowers that extended on as far as he could see. The entire place seemed to carry and air of tranquility. Honestly, if he had known this was on the other side of the mirror he would have considered coming here on purpose. While he often found himself in these situations, he couldn’t deny there was a certain carefree easiness that came with being made younger. “Ugh, my clothes don’t fit… How the heck am I supposed to get around like this?”
“Well…” Steel glanced around the meadow. There were a few pairs of discarded clothing, laying empty in the grass. “Looks like there were other people here before us. And they just chose to do without.”
“Of course they did.” Shasta muttered. He struggled to get out of his clothing. No matter how many times he shrunk or regressed out of his clothes he couldn’t help but still feel a little modest. Once free of the clothes he had been wearing, it was easy enough for him to stand. Actually, too easy. Given that he was just a toddler he should have had some trouble balancing. But it was as if he was stronger. “Well… At least this time it’s not being broadcast on TV for my entire classmates to see me naked and small.”
“You were on TV?” Steel gave him a confused look. “You never told me that.”
“I’m surprised you hadn’t seen it.” Shasta rubbed the back of his head. “Every episode I got younger, wasn’t long before I couldn’t wear any of the clothes I had and of course the show hosts didn’t provide any fitting clothing. I got… Quite a bit of teasing after the show, both before and after I got back to normal.”
“Huh, wonder why I never saw that show.” Steel mused. He stopped trying to hold up the shirt and let go of it. It simply was too big for him to try to actually carry around with him. Once he had, he like Shasta became aware of the fact that his body felt way more stable than it should have for his age. “Guess we’re stuck running around naked for now…”
“Mmmmph.” Shasta didn’t reply. Instead he examined the area. The only thing that stood out in the meadow was the giant oak tree that was nearby. There was a massive hollow in the center of it. Everything had happened so fast, but Shasta was pretty sure they had rolled out of that when the arrived. So the mirror was some kind of portal, and it made people younger. Or maybe the world it transported them to a place that made them younger. Who could say? The big question was could they leave, or were they stuck here forever? Shasta slowly approached the oak tree.
“What’s up?” Steel asked. He had seen the tree, but was more curious about the world itself, and what he might find if he set out to explore it.
“Trying to find out if we’re stuck or not.” Shasta explained. He stuck a hand into the hollow of the tree. On the other side, it felt cooler. Like it was back in the basement. Did that mean? Hoping his theory was correct, Shasta walked into the hole at the base of the oak tree. He disappeared into the darkness.
And found himself stepping back out into the basement of the classroom building. He nearly tripped as he did. His body had suddenly gone from two years old to college age in an instant. Legs suddenly changing length and proportion like that were enough to throw him off balance. He barely managed to steady himself and avoid falling down again. The sudden change in stature must have been why they fell and rolled over in the grass.
But… Shasta had made it back! And he was even back to his own age! That meant whatever that place was, he could come and go as he pleased. And he was only a little kid while he was on the other side of the portal. Knowing that, he felt a little more confident. The fact the place was safe and that he could easily came back made him more willing to give in to curiosity and try to learn about the world on the other side of the mirror. Part of him wondered if they should go get a few other friends to go with them. They couldn’t tease him about being a bare little pup if they were all in the same boat.
It was at this moment Shasta remembered that he was naked. He had left his clothing inside the mirror world. Supposedly, no one ever came into this building. But if Steel could get curious and investigate, so could anyone else. And it would just be Shasta’s luck to arrive just in time for someone to climb down the basement stairs and see him like this. With that in mind, he quickly jumped back through the mirror.
As he came out into the meadow and his body was abruptly small again he managed to steady himself and land on two feet. He had been expecting it now. He understood the rules of how the mirror worked and that gave him a lot more confidence.
“Where’d you go?” Steel asked as Shasta reappeared.
“Back to the basement.” Shasta explained. “It’s a two-way portal. We can come and go as we please.” Shasta wagged his tail. “Honestly, that’s a huge relief to know. Now I’m ready to check this place out.”
“You certainly did a 180.” Steel gave Shasta a suspicious stare.
“Is caution really such a bad thing?” Shasta asked. “We didn’t know what the mirror was, or how it worked. There was a chance that if we came through, we might have never been able to go back. Now, I know that’s not an issue. Honestly, it’s not that I actually hate things like this when it happens. It’s when they happen in an uncontrolled way at an inconvenient time. But this?” Shasta gestured at the meadow around them. “Knowing we can come and go, I wouldn’t mind coming here on purpose to relax every now and then.”
“And if it hadn’t been for my curiosity you would have never learned about it.” Steel grinned.
“Or I might have been able to find someone with experience with this type of thing who could have explained it before hand.” Shasta narrowed his eyes. “We had no guarantee this didn’t lead to some kind of nightmare landscape.”
“Who would you even ask about something like this?” Steel gave Shasta a quizzical look.
“I know people.” Shasta rubbed the back of his head. “There were the others on the show… Some had more experience… And then stuff like this happens to snow leopard friend of mine… Then there’s the orange kitten… Normally he’d be the type to drag me someplace here explaining about how I’m too stressed and need to relax a bit.”
“Would he be wrong?” Steel grinned.
“Well…” Shasta didn’t think he had a bad life. Aside from the weird occurrences, he was attending school. He had friends. And sometimes they even hung out like normal people and didn’t wind up with their bodies changed into new shapes and sizes. Still, college was a lot of work. He couldn’t deny that between balancing homework, preparing for exams, and having to pick up the occasional part-time job (which almost always involved supernatural shenanigans) that he was under quite a bit of stress. He had been reminded time and again he needed to take time out to relax just for his mental health. He just, hadn’t planned to take that time out as a toddler.
And yet it kept happening.
“You know the more I think about this situation the more I realize I should just stop worrying and roll with it.” Shasta sighed and held out his arms. “Things always get back to normal in the end somehow. No matter how insane things get. And so far this place seems pretty harmless. Might as well enjoy the moment.”
“Glad to see you’re on the right page. Let’s go explore and see what we can find.” Steel grinned then paused. “Though… Kind of wish I had some fitting clothes right now. Wonder if I could rip up my shirt to make some kind of loincloth.”
“Forget it.” Shasta waved a paw dismissively. Something that he himself hardly believed he was doing in relation to casual nudity. “You’re going to need your clothes intact for when we go back. Besides.” He gestured at the other piles of empty clothes that littered the meadow. “It’s not embarrassing if everyone is like this.”
“I suppose so…” Steel rubbed his chin and tried to forget about the clothes for now.
Now in agreement to explore the place, the next decision was which way to go. They wound up traveling in a north westerly direction. Probably. It was difficult to figure out direction by the position of the sun since they were in another world. There was no telling if it followed the same rules as their own or anything like that. But they didn’t have anything else to base directions off of at the time, so until they learned differently it would have to do.
The meadow was expansive, and every single part of it just felt inviting. Neither Shasta nor Steel could have imagined a better spot to take a nap. The grass was softer than most beds either had slept in and the entire area had that pleasant warmness without being overbearing. It was a place of peace. And the two might have thought the entire world were a place of peace until they reached the edge of the meadow.
The meadow abruptly stopped, and a desert started. There was no gradual decrease of vegetation and build up of sand. It was like two different ecosystems had been ripped off the planet then slammed down next to each other. They didn’t match up. To make things more confusing, the sun was in a different location in the desert. It wasn’t noticeable until the two stepped over the threshold. But the second they did, the sun seemed to be bigger and closer to the Earth, or whatever planet this was. Everything felt and looked like it should be hotter. And maybe it was slightly warmer. But, the temperature was still surprisingly comfortable. The sand wasn’t even hot to the touch of their paws.
“Well, this is weird.” Steel walked further ahead into the desert. “I would expect it to be a lot hotter.”
“Yeah, it’s kind of like being on a TV set of a desert instead of the real thing. Like it was all just special effects. But…” He stuck a paw into the sand. It was real. He glanced upward in the direction of the sun, avoiding staring directly at it. The sunlight felt real bearing down on him. It just wasn’t nearly as hot as it should have been.
“Hey! I see something in the distance!” Steel pointed further into the desert. At first it looked like it might be a mirage, but as the two moved closer it materialized into a town. It was essentially an old western style town. The type you saw in old western movies. Old rickety wooden building, a saloon, a sheriff’s office, and railroad tracks running through town.
As they reached the town something else came into view though. Further into the desert from the city they could see the shape of a pyramid.
“Wait, is this supposed to be the wild west or Egypt?” Shasta squinted and stared into the distance trying to figure out if the pyramid was real or a mirage.
“Both?” Steel suggested. It wasn’t there world. There was no reason to assume it would run by their rules.
“That’s just silly…” Shasta muttered.
“Come on let’s check out the town!” Steel ran ahead, curious to see what the other people were like here.
“Hey wait up!” Shasta chased after him. Running, that was another thing they shouldn’t have been capable of at this age. At least not like this. The temperature always being comfortable, their bodies being more capable. Just what the heck was this place?
The town didn’t seem to have a large population as they arrived. What was there, like Shasta and Steel, were all children. However, they varied in range. Some were around two like the pups. Others were as old as four years old. A few seemed to be newborns. And though the newborns couldn’t walk on two legs or talk, even they seemed more physically capable, dragging things along with them.
There were an assortment of species. Many humanoid animals like Shasta and Steel, including some cats, at least one dragon, a rabbit, a badger and some mice who were only about shin high in comparison to the other animals. There were also humans around. A species that did not actually exist in Shasta and Steel’s world.
“What the heck are those?” Steel muttered pointing at one of them.”
“Human. They’re from some weird alternate universe.” Shasta hissed. He hadn’t encountered them too often. But there had been incidents. Then again, the last ‘human’ he met didn’t stay human for long.
No one in the town was properly dressed. However, some of them had belts on, with toy pistols hanging off of them. A few people wore some oversized hats. Other than that, nothing, not even on the humans. No one seemed to care or react to it, and no one noticed when two more pups showed up in town. They fit in along with everyone else.
“This is surreal.” Shasta muttered.
“Hmmmm.” Steel looked around town. “Let’s check out the saloon!” He gestured towards a building.
“We’re too young to drink even at our normal ages.” Shasta stated flatly. Though, not by much. And in some countries it was legal.
“But everyone is a kid here, rules are different. So why have a saloon if no one is old enough to get drinks?” Steel asked. “Besides, everyone knows that’s the first place you go to get information in this type of place.”
“Fine, but even if they do somehow serve alcohol to babies, we’re not getting drunk.” Shasta stated firmly.
As it would turn out, there was no alcohol to be found. Instead, after the two entered the saloon and took a seat at the bar they were offered their choice of juice. Apple, orange, pear, pineapple, lychee. Just about every fruit imaginable they had fresh juice of. And the ‘cocktails’ listed on the menu were just different juices mixes together.
“What can I get you two boys today?” A red panda girl asked form the other side of the bar. She was only a year old, but walked upright easily and talked with no problem. “Apple juice is the usual favorite, but a lot of people have been going for mango lately.”
“Um… Two apple juices?” Shasta replied as he took his seat.
“Coming right up.” The red panda turned away from them and walked towards the back of the bar area. There she mimed out the action of pouring an invisible pitcher of liquid into invisible glasses. But the second she finished, two real glasses filled with apple juice appeared that she brought over to the two.
“How did you do that?” Steel had observed carefully. He thought he had a couple of ideas about how magic might work. But he was certain he hadn’t seen any spells worked. The red panda had just been pretending to make drinks then suddenly they were real.
“Same way everyone else here does.” She replied. “You boys new in town or something?”
“Yes…” Shasta replied slowly before grabbing his juice. “Where are we?”
“If you meant he town, Giza Springs.” The red panda replied with a wry grin. “If you’re talking about the world, it’s apparently called Springtide.”
“Springtide huh?” Steel looked thoughtful as he sipped his juice. “And you made the juice the same way everyone else does?”
“Anyone can do it.” The panda girl shrugged. “There are stores and restaurants littered throughout the different sections of Springtide. As long as someone is willing to play out the part of working at them, food and drink just appears. Course, only things appropriate for the area will appear. Like the saloon can only make juice.”
“Huh.” Shasta had a realization. The desert heat not bothering them. Their bodies seeming capable to get around. And now magically appearing drinks. “This entire place is like a giant game of make pretend.”
“That’s probably about the most accurate description I can give of this place.” The red panda shrugged. “People come here to get lost in their adventures in youth. Most go back home eventually, but some people stay forever.”
“I see.” Steel seemed incredibly interested. “So… Is it just meadow and desert?”
“Not at all.” The red panda grinned. “There’s a bunch of zones. The city, forest, junkyard, cardboard forest, pirate bay, haunted house and demon realm just to name a few. Each place is pretty much just a backdrop for whatever you want to do.”
At this point, the conversation was cut off as there was loud screaming outside. Shouts of ‘He’s here’ and similar remarks could be heard. Many of the kids came inside of the saloon to hide.
“What’s going on?” Steel asked.
“The Stranger.” The panda dropped her voice to a whisper. “Here to rob a bank most likely.”
“So a kid playing at being a bank robber?” Shasta asked.
“No those are outlaws. The Stranger is a Phantom.” The panda could see the blank looks she was getting. “Phantoms are powerful spirit things that exist in Springtide. They don’t seem to be self-aware, but they each carry out a specific role and act in a specific way. They’re kind of like bad guys to beat up. And they just kind of disappear after you win. The Stranger plays the role of a robber, and usually when someone wants to play the role of the sheriff or something is when they face him. Most of us just avoid him. He doesn’t bother you if you don’t bother him.”
“So, it’s another game.” Steel grinned. “Cops and robbers. Hey, Shasta, want to go stop a bank robbery?”
“Not really, I’m kind of enjoying just relaxing and drinking my juice.” Shasta replied.
“Oh come on! It’ll be fun!” Steel stood up and dragged Shasta to his feet. “When would we get the chance to do something like this in the real world.”
“Fine, fine I see your point.” Shasta allowed himself to be led out of the saloon.
“Wait, you two! You can’t just head into your first fight without-“ The red panda sighed. “And they’re gone. Well, guess I better stick around longer in case they need help after.”
Outside, Steel and Shasta encountered the stranger. It was an adult sized, humanoid figure, but it seemed to somehow remain completely hidden in shadows. It wore clothing that completely covered its body, and its large hat cast a shadow that hid its face. He also wore a belt, much like what many of the other children had worn, with what appeared to be a cap gun on it. He was heading for the bank, walking right by Shasta and Steel as they stepped out of the saloon.
“Hey! Don’t ignore us!” Steel shouted.
“…” The stranger wordlessly turned around to face the two. It stared them down, but made no further movements.
“Um Steel… What exactly is the plan here?” Shasta asked. “Even if it’s make pretend, we don’t have anything to actually stop him with.” Shasta couldn’t help but notice that the Stranger’s gun looked like a toy though. The toy guns so many people were carrying around. Would those be enough to take this Phantom? If this entire world was a game of make pretend it made sense. But they didn’t even have toys.
“I dunno, I figured we’d tackle him or something.” Steel replied dismissively. “I mean it’s all just a giant game right?”
“Maybe… But one we don’t know all the rules too yet.” Shasta’s previous experiences made him cautious. Steel meanwhile was ready to test exactly how this world worked. He was willing to try things just to see what would happen.
“So, I guess I should say something heroic?” Steel paused and considered for a moment. “I got nothing. You?”
“No!” Shasta replied. “I hadn’t even been planning on getting into a fight.”
“…” The Stranger continued to watch them wordlessly without responding.
“Ah forget it. Just get him!” Steel shouted as he ran after the stranger, aiming to tackle him.
“This is a really bad idea.” Shasta muttered, but followed suit.
They closed about half the distance when the Stranger quickly grabbed the gun off his belt. He took quick aim and there were two shots. The toy gun didn’t shoot physical bullets. Just small energy bullets. Either way, the shots came out faster than either of the two pups could expect, and both of them were struck. Neither one was physically injured, but after being shot, suddenly the world started to grow a lot larger in comparison to them. The entire town grew gigantic, and the Stranger who was already bigger than them seemed to grow even larger. Steel and Shasta were shrinking.
They barely had time to register what had happened before the stranger was kneeling down. He reached beneath his poncho, produced a bottle and scooped the shrunken pups up inside of it before putting a cork in it.
“Hey! What’s the big idea! Let us out!” Steel banged on the glass.
“Shrunk and regressed.” Shasta muttered as he sat inside the bottle. “Two in one day.”
The Stranger paid no mind to either of them, and hid the bottle with them inside back inside his poncho. There, they waited for several minutes in darkness, before suddenly light appeared again, as the Stranger was now inside a building on a shelf full of bottles of juice. He moved a bottle aside, placed the bottle containing Shasta and Steel, and then moved a bottle of juice in the way to conceal them from easy sight before disappearing.
“Hey get back here!” Steel continued to bang on the bottle. “Cheating jerk! You can’t just shrink us in the middle of a fight!”
“He clearly can.” Shasta was at this point resigned to just let the chaos run. What was more concerning was the fact the Phantom had taken the time to conceal where they were hidden. That meant they likely were going to have to find a way out themselves. “Maybe if we time it together and slam into the side of the bottle, we can tip it over and knock it off the shelf?”
“That seems like it might get us hurt…” Steel considered. “But it beats just staying around here.” He nodded to Shasta as the two took a few steps back got ready to run.
And promptly found the bottle blocking them from view removed, and their bottle lifted into the air. The red panda who had served them early, now leagues bigger than them held the bottle containing them carefully in her paws.
“Newbies.” She giggled as she pulled the cork out of the bottle and then gently tipped it over to let Steel and Shasta stand atop the bar counter. “Don’t go into a fight with a Phantom unarmed. Especially not the Stranger, he’s a quick draw specialist.”
“You could have warned us earlier.” Steel sat down on the bar and crossed his arms.
“I did try.” She shrugged. “But… This is what happens when you lose a fight in Springtide.”
“Wait, so, every fight is resolved with a shrink ray?” Shasta looked up at her with a questioning look.
“Not necessarily shrinking, but some type of transformation. Rather it leave you a feral animal, shrinks you, turns you into an egg. No one can get hurt in Springtide, so the Phantoms, and even other kids have other ways of ending fights. The good news is, you got off lightly. After you ran out, I figured this would happen so I hung around the saloon to look for your bottle after the Stranger left. He always hides the bottles of the people he beats in here.”
“So… How do we unshrink?” Shasta asked.
“Well, it was a Phantom that did it, so it’s harder to reverse.” The panda looked thoughtful. “But, there are plenty of Phantoms out there, guarding plenty of treasures, any one of them might be able to reverse it.”
“Ok, but how are we supposed to get to any of those like this?” Shasta gestured at himself. He was like an inch tall, tops.
“Being tiny isn’t as big a problem as you think.” The red panda grinned.
“Now you’re starting to sound like an orange kitten.” Shasta rolled his eyes.
“But, you can’t get physically hurt. That means you don’t have to worry about being crushed or hunted by a predator or anything like that. Sure, it takes longer to get around, but you can be sneakier. Squirm underneath cracks in doors, walk right through traps. Steal a treasure out from under a Phantom’s nose without them knowing.”
“So basically, rely on stealth.” Steel sighed. “I guess that makes sense. If we’re this small we’d be hard to find. But where do we even get one of these treasures.”
“Any section of Springtide has treasure. But, at your current size it might take a bit to walk to another section, so you may be best off checking out one of the pyramids here. Just, don’t get caught in a mummy Phantom’s curse or you’ll wind up in an even worse state.”
“So…. While roughly half the size of mice we’re supposed to just infiltrate a pyramid, steal a treasure, and hope it changes us back while also evading a mummy who can make things worse?”
“Pretty much. Kind of a standard Springtide adventure, especially in Giza Springs.” The red panda replied dismissively. “Though, it’ll be dark soon. Just cause you don’t get hurt doesn’t mean you won’t get tired. We have some beds made from matchstick boxes. This happens common enough for us to have things ready for small people. You can spend the night, then figure out in the morning how you want to solve your little problem.”
“If we just head back to our own world, shouldn’t we change back to normal?” Shasta asked hopefully.
“Your age will, but not anything else that changes about you.” The red panda replied. “So anything else, unless you want it to be permanent you better figure out how to reverse before you leave.”
“Gosh darn it.” Shasta muttered. It was hardly the first time he was shrunk, and there was probably some way to fix it back home. But that was going to be a long journey. Anything they did was a long journey.
“Well… I want to see more of how this world works anyway. So, what do you say Shasta? Rest for the night then tomorrow morning, set out to sneak into a pyramid and use our size to bypass all the traps.”
“Sure I guess.” Shasta knew better than just to fight it. This entire place was supposed to be a game right? Was just best to play by the rules rather than try to fight against it. “But I’ve had enough excitement for one day. I’m ready for a nap.”
“Not me I’m-“ Steel didn’t finish before he yawned. “Okay… Maybe I am a little tired. But tomorrow, tomorrow we start our next adventure.”
And so they would. But it would only be one of many adventures before they would finally return to their own world. They would both have several tales to tell before this was all over. But the tale of how they discovered and came to the world has come to an end. The rest are stories to be told another time.