The bath was still warm as Julien woke up. He noticed that before he noticed the tile of the ceiling, and the columns around him, or the smell of something soothing in the air, and all of those things before he noticed the sensation of something soft floating in the bath, brushing against his arms and chest at the level of the water. He moved his head to the side. The soft things moved along with it. Long… brushing against his shoulders, too.
He blinked as he realized… it couldn’t be – it was his hair.
He sat up with a start – and that’s when his mind got around to processing what his senses were telling him. He was in a bath, but it wasn’t the bath he’d gotten into back at the hotel. This room was wide, spacious, every move he made causing an echo throughout the chamber. The walls, floor, and everything were covered with beautiful, glistening tiles – gold, as well as plenty of colors, like jewels. The scent he had noticed before, that he only now realized was incense, wafted through the space. He could see the burners that the incense came from.
It wasn’t until then that he realized there was someone else there – he heard chanting. Julien saw him about as soon as he heard him, a young man with long white hair, wearing a robe that seemed heavy for somewhere this warm. He stood in the center of several incense burners on stands, chanting something.
“H-hey-“ Julien started, then stopped as he heard his voice echo throughout the chamber. He ducked back down into the bath, as if trying to take the sound back – of course, it didn’t work like that.
The chanting boy paused in his words. He took a deep breath before opening his eyes. When he saw Julien, he looked… relieved? He stood up suddenly, and Julien flinched. He slowed, but continued to approach.
“Easy,” he said. “I do not mean to hurt you.”
Trust him? Julien breathed in. Then again, what choice did he have, really?
“Where am I?” Julien asked. He tried to sound firm, but he could hear his voice waver, and it wasn’t just the echo. Even in the warmth of the bath, he shook a little.
“This is Iteion, in northern Thyreia. Just east of Marysos.” He seemed to notice Julien’s confused look. “Right… that would mean nothing to you.” He dropped the robe off of his shoulders as he approached. Underneath it, he was as sweaty as to be expected. He wore nothing but several necklaces and some sort of loincloth. Julien wondered if he should look away, but then again… this was a bath, after all. The other boy sat down on the ledge of the large bathing pool, a few feet away, giving Julien some space.
“I apologize,” he started, “for dragging you away from your world and bringing you here, but… out world is in dire need.”
Julien blinked. The other young man continued, but Julien was still on “world”.
“Wait… ” he asked. This was too fast. “First of all, where – where am I?” he asked. “This is still the hotel, right?”
He remembered now that he was waking up – he had been alone in his hotel room, taking a bath just after checking in. He had arrived earlier that day to an event, and he planned to meet some friends there. “I have to go, they’ll be-“
“I have had notification sent to your friends,” he said. “Do not worry, they will not be disturbed by your absence.”
“Notifi- how?” Julien asked. “What’s going on? What is this?”
“It is as I said,” the other young man said. His white hair was long enough to touch the water behind where he sat – a good foot past his waist. Julien remembered his own suddenly lengthened honey brown hair. Was his also –
Wait. More pressing matters.
“What exactly do you mean by… world?” Julien asked.
“I have no doubt you are familiar with the concept,” he said “I had deduced that the gathering you were attending was with the intention of speculating about such happenings-“
“You’re trying to tell me…” Julien couldn’t believe it. “No. That’s just in fiction-“
“As far as the people of your world are concerned,” he said. “But on rare occasions, dwellers of more… magically-enhanced worlds, shall we say, will find inclination to bridge the divide and-“
“Magically…?” Julien asked. “That chanting you were doing…”
“Yes,” the other young man said. “It was part of the spell to bring you here.”
“Spell,” Julien said, nodding incredulously, speechless. After months of begging from his few online friends, he had agreed to meet them at a fantasy convention, but he didn’t think it would involve anyone trying to use the words “other worlds” and “spells” as if they were completely serious.
He shook his head and blinked. “Send me back,” he said. “Or something. Whatever it is you do…” His attempts to sound firm weren’t working. Part of him was still convinced that this was all some sort of prank, that they were in some part of the hotel set up for role-playing or something. But looking around… not even the most meticulous Hollywood set builders could make a room that looked this authentically… distant. It wasn’t just the size, or the look of the tiles, the smell of the incense – he knew as well as anyone else that he didn’t know enough to tell the difference between “real” incense, whatever that meant, and the cheap stuff from some store in a mall, but it was more than that. There was something he could feel that he knew couldn’t be part of a set in a modern hotel that had air conditioning and things like that.
And that was before he noticed the letters dancing across the walls. They were in some writing system he didn’t recognize… except, he did. He could read them. They were a spell, crafted by this other young man – whose name was Evindr, according to the spell – with directions of some sort – through space, and time, and everything else, dimensions far past that. Invocations to spirits and energies and all sorts of things – recipes for mixing the scents of the incense, and herbs and flowers, with the water from the bath, with the echoes and tones of the sorcerer’s voice as he chanted, sending this fusion into the streams of energy in the world, and asking them in return for a result.
Julien didn’t need to finish reading it – he knew he was that result. And the letters themselves – they weren’t projected on the walls, nor were they LED lights hidden in the walls themselves, under the tile. They weren’t created by the technologies of his world – they were real magic.
He breathed in. The young man – the sorcerer, Evindr – didn’t reply. That was all the answer Julien needed.
“I am… sorry,” he told Julien. His voice wavered. He seemed like he meant it. “My kingdom needs you,” he said.
“For what, exactly?” Julien said. He knew his voice sounded weak. He couldn’t bring himself to worry about that anymore. He remembered another point. “And – why is my hair like this…?”
Evindr smiled a bit as he answered. “It is the custom, here,” he said. “You would not make a very convincing prince with hair as short as you had it,”
“I – wait… prince?”
“Yes,” Evindr said. “Our prince is missing, and he is to come of age within three months. I needed to find a stand-in. You shall play that role, Julien,” he said. Julien wasn’t surprised that Evindr knew his name. The rest of it, though…
He opened his mouth, but he had no idea what to say.
What in the world have I –
No, he realized. Not in “the world”. In “a world” – not his own.
Evindr gave him silence to let it sink in.
The scent of the incense, the feeling of the water, and of his long hair… a minute or so passed in silence, just the sound of the water echoing off of the tiles, and the feeling of the steam in the air.
“If…” Julien started. He couldn’t believe he was saying this. “If I go along with this…” Julien said.
“Then when the true prince returns,” Evindr responded, “you may return to your world.”
Julien nodded. There was likely no way to return without Evindr’s help, and he knew he couldn’t make it in a strange world he’d never even heard of before on his own.
Evindr helped him out of the bath – as he expected, he was a bit wobbly on his feet. Such a journey could do that to you – he understood that even as he still struggled to wrap his head around everything. A large part of him still expected this to be a dream, even as all of his senses told him it was real.
He wavered a bit and began to fall – Evindr caught him. With his hand on Evindr’s shoulder, Julien could tell that that Evindr wasn’t all that steady either – summoning a visitor from another world must take about as much out of a person as the journey does.
Before they left the bath, Evindr put his robe back on, and gave Julien a similar one. Julien took it, grateful, surprised that it hadn’t even occurred to him that he wasn’t wearing anything. He saw Evindr gracefully pull his long hair out from the inside of his robe. Julien considered, but didn’t even attempt it – he would just embarrass himself.
Did he really need to have hair that long for this?