This chapter is told from Stefan’s perspective
Zulu: Indlu Yomzuzu Wesikhombisa
Gaming with Leila was one of the best ways to play. She was in for the fun and the stories. She liked the adventures rather than acting like she had to prove or defend something. Plus it kept us in touch; that alone made it worth making sure she enjoyed the game we chose.
“Ah, we’re here,” I said as the location’s name came up on the screen. “And I already see a bunch of snakes.”
I normally don’t mind snakes that much. They were even important in Norse culture, with Jörmungandr being one of Loki’s children. Not that that would be any reason for me to want to keep one as a pet; I just prefer to learn about something instead of fearing it. I liked wolves much better, anyway.
“Hey, nice! Fenrir’s really taking them down!” The wolf in the game was running a few paces ahead and pulling the snakes down from their trees before they could drop on us.
“That’s great,” Leila said. “Maybe we’ll get poisoned a lot less with it helping us.”
“We’ll see; There are supposed to be a ton of bats as we get further in, and– woah, watch out for that owl!”
A large brown owl swooped by, screeching as it grabbed one of the smaller snakes and continued on.
“See?” Leila said. “It’s not so bad.”
“Did you summon it?”
Leila nodded to the web cam as she went on fighting another of the snakes alongside the wolf. “It’s another of my character’s abilities. Owls can be really helpful.”
“You say that now,” I replied, “but you haven’t met the ones in my dreams.”
“Do tell,” she said, her curiosity clearly piqued.
“Well, last night for example,” I told her as we continued through the quest, “I dreamed that Sleipnir dropped me off in a forest where all the trees were black.”
“It was. And it would have been really dark if it weren’t for the full moon. There were a bunch of dark gray owls, and they ended up chasing Sleipnir away.”
“Maybe you needed to stop relying on the horse in order to learn something– or to become something more than you currently are.”
“I might agree with you on that,” I said, “if Fenrir hadn’t sought me out. He ended up telling me to ride on his back.”
“Doesn’t he usually not let anyone do that?” Leila asked.
I shook my head. “The Norse gods had to chain him up to keep from being eaten by him, so no, he’s not exactly friendly.”
“Where did he take you?”
“To the center of the forest,” I said, none too pleased.
“You don’t sound like you liked that at all. What was there?”
“A giant owl. Remember how the one in “Legend of Zelda” was pretty much bigger than Link?” I reminded her. “This one was taller than me. It was black and gray, with silver eyes that looked right through me.”
“What did it do to you?” Leila asked.
I shrugged. “It talked to me. I know, I know, you don’t think that’s such a big deal. But Leila, it’s what it told me that really had an impact.”
“Okay,” she said, “so tell me what it told you.”
“It said that you were straying.” I sighed, knowing how weird that sounded. “That was its word choice, not mine. The owl said you’ve been wandering too close to danger, and told me to take Fenrir and Sleipnir with me and go keep an eye on you.”
Leila knew not to laugh. She didn’t make fun of me for putting so much stock into what I dreamt about. Still, I think she found that one pretty incredulous, no matter how well she hid it.
“I’m not doing anything dangerous,” she insisted.
“Sure,” I replied, “but these owls keep showing up, and really, Leila, I think they’re right. You might not realize it yet, but things only seem safe right now.”
“It’s probably just because I moved a couple hours away,” Leila told me. I’m sure she was trying not to sound too critical, but I think she was unimpressed by my warning. “The dreams will cool down once you visit and see that everything is fine.”
“I sure hope so,” I said, “because they’ve been pretty intense lately.”
And if she was right, I wanted to visit her that much sooner. Worrying about her because of my dreams was rough, because it was already unnerving having her so far away. I couldn’t just drop by her apartment when she didn’t speak to me for hours, or when I had a strange dream, or when I just needed one of her famously warm hugs. Something was going on up in those mountains, and I needed to make sure it wouldn’t take her out of my life.
My grandmother used to tell me that the gods speak to us through dreams. She wasn’t lying, but she was leaving out a few details. Dreams do a lot more than letting the gods tell us things; the gods are usually too busy to show up, anyway. After she passed away, I learned that dreams also let us connect with the dead. She claimed it was because she respected the old gods so much. Whatever the reason, sometimes she would ride Sleipnir to find me and talk to me for a little while. Sometimes Sleipnir would take me to the base of Yggdrasil, where my grandmother would be waiting for me.
I didn’t tell her that in some of my other dreams, I would see Leila. Sometimes we rode Sleipnir together; sometimes we just sat on a hill of flowers overlooking a river, talking or playing music. My grandmother would have reminded me all about the symbolism in those dreams. She would have urged me to do something about them.
But how could I take the risk my grandmother would have wanted me to take? Leila is my best friend in all the world, and I wasn’t going to compromise that.
I also couldn’t tell my second-best friend in the world. Telling Killian would have been the same as telling Leila– not because he would have told her, but because he would have said to do something about it, too. And there’s no coming back from that.
Six hundred seventy-two days. That’s how long ago my ex-girlfriend had left me. She didn’t think music was a stable enough career, even though I had multiple streams of income. I think she was just as upset that I didn’t try harder to keep her. In reality, those things told me that she wasn’t right for me. Nobody should make the person they’re with compromise on what’s at their core, and music was– and still is– a foundational part of mine. I respected her need for stability, but I couldn’t give her that in a way she’d accept, so I let it end as amicably as I could.
Four hundred twelve days ago was when I had my last date with anyone. She had been flirting with me at the music store and ended up giving me her business card with her personal number on it. I took her to one of the superhero movies with Loki in it, and she took me to her apartment. It was a little surprising just how infatuated she was with Loki, but who am I to complain? Besides, she really liked my tattoos, and she showed me hers. I don’t think she wanted anything more than that one night, though, because I never heard from her again.
I’ve thought about dating only a couple other times since then. There was a girl at Game Stop I kept bumping into; we liked a lot of the same games, so we’d get lunch together now and then. I told her I wasn’t looking to date anyone, but I wouldn’t turn down having another friend, and she seemed pretty cool with that. We went to the same pizza place together, which was this tiny, hard-to-find place not far from the music store. Nothing more ever came of it than lunches and gaming, which is fine by me.
Larsa tried teasing me about having a longer dry spell than he’d had, but he cut that out as soon as I gave him a piece of my mind. I really didn’t need him nagging me about anything; he’s better off focusing on studying and making Killian happy.
Things had been feeling different ever since the night of the symphony. Not necessarily good or bad, but in motion, like things were happening in the world and would continue to happen. I just didn’t know what things. Leila had been so… present. I still haven’t found the right word for it. I can’t say ‘affectionate,’ and ‘interested’ just doesn’t cut it. But she was really, truly happy to be there, seeing me perform, and then attending the company dinner with us.
She’s always been like that; there’s nowhere else she’d rather be than with her friends. And she makes it easy for her friends to feel the same way about her. The only difference is that in my dreams, she’s perfectly content for it to be just her and me. For a long time, I couldn’t figure out why I had dreams like those. I couldn’t tell Killian, and if I had a girlfriend at the time, I definitely couldn’t tell her. I eventually figured it out on my own, and I guess that’s part of why I don’t care whether or not I go on any more dates.
I had another dream when it was almost time to head up to Leila’s house for her birthday. At first, she was on a hill, taller than normal, like the old depictions of Boadicea. Her hair was longer and more scarlet, and the wind blew it all around her body. When she saw me, I was standing on another hill with Sleipnir at my side. She smiled– like the women in classical paintings do– before climbing onto the back of a unicorn and galloping away.
Sleipnir and I followed her. The next time I saw her, we were riding out of a shadowy wood. There was a stone tower, something like out of the fantasy games we played together, and she was on a balcony a few floors up. It reminded me of a scene from “Romeo and Juliet,” which was almost funny, because Leila is not a fan. She smiled and waved, then dropped her handkerchief– another weird detail to dream about.
I went to catch it for her so that I could take it inside and return it to her, but someone else beat me to it. He was nearly a foot taller than me, with eyes like steel and hair like midnight. The way his legs folded told me he wasn’t human. What was he? Something from Roman mythology, maybe? It wasn’t until he stood up straighter and the torchlight fell across his face that I realized he had horns; big, round, black horns that must have weighed a ton.
He looked down at me, and I looked back up at him. Was he holding Leila captive? She was outside earlier, but was her situation like Odette’s in “Swan Lake”? What happened if she missed her curfew? I looked back up to the balcony, and she was watching us silently, curiously.
I don’t remember anything else from that dream. Either that was where it ended, or there were parts that faded once I woke up. I just knew I didn’t like the thing with the black horns. It was too much like the freak who’d groped Leila back at Club Nightshade. Come to think of it, maybe that was the night when the world had really started to change.