She was wearing the same style of improbable dress as before, a gown of gold brocade like the dress of a medieval princess from a romantic era painting. It belonged in a setting with finery and luxurious furniture. It was utterly at odds with the context of sitting on a rock. Her hair fell in long curls behind her to a length unlikely for any modern woman to bother growing. The appearance should have gone with fancy shoes, but the feet that peeked out from under the hem were shod in rope sandals.
Those were the only part of her attire that were not completely ridiculous for a woman who wandered the wilderness and fought for survival like a mountain man.
She slipped off the rock and moved toward him. He realized he was sitting on his rump in the sand. As she approached, he shifted to his knees and tried to get up, but he didn’t seem able to stand.
“Stay there, boy,” she said with a slight smile as she arrived. She put her hand on his head, like he was a child. She’d done that often, in the old days. Those jade eyes remained both sad and happy, but with a piercing strength.
She was no older, but of course, why would a dream age? The woman who had comforted him in childhood would be in her seventies or eighties by now. This woman was of uncertain age, perhaps somewhere in her thirties or forties, now less than his own age, and remained a striking beauty.
Her smile grew a little sadder as she stroked his hair. “You’ve grown quite a bit older, boy. I suppose it was unavoidable. But you’ve grown strong in many ways. I think you will be strong enough.”
He hadn’t realized it when he was young, but the woman spoke with an accent. It was like listening to the English of someone whose native language was some Southeast Asian tongue. It was at odds with her Western European appearance.
“Strong enough?” He asked echoing her last words.
Her eyes darkened, then softened. “Even though it’s a cruel thing we’ve already done to you, it is crueler for me to ask the thing I’m asking of you next. But I pray it will free you, one way or the other.”
“Free me?” For some reason, all he could do was repeat things. His mind felt muddy. Something was very different about this dream. In the past, he had followed her on her adventures through her strange existence, this harsh and thinly-populated world that she seemed so much at home in. She had sometimes done amazing things, defended herself against monsters or caused bridges across impassable terrain to appear. She had even picked him up and flown, running fast and free over amazing landscapes.
This time, they were simply meeting, face to face, on a deserted beach, and he didn’t have the same free, alive feeling as before. It felt almost as if he were fighting to stay awake in this place.
The winds were growing strong rapidly, and they were whipping her hair, but she continued giving him that sad smile.
“You lost your quarry, and that frustrates you,” she observed.
He nodded, growing a frown. She was talking about what happened when he was awake. That was a feature of his dreams in the past, too.
“He believes he has trapped you here, you and the others we led to chase after him, but you’ve beaten him, boy, if you can take his treasure. He has foolishly left it here, laying out in the open for you, because he believes it is hidden from you.”
A tear appeared on her cheek as her eyes grew yet sadder. “Guard your life, Jack, for I cannot guard it for you in the place where you have come. If you should fall, my friends can rescue your soul, but your body will die. I am not eager for you to follow me so soon. Guard your life well.”
The wind began rising to gale force and the skies grew dark as death. If she wasn’t right there, her face now within a foot of him, hunched down to speak to him, he would not have heard the previous words. A lightning bolt struck, somewhere nearby, and the thunder was nearly deafening.
To his amazement, she then gathered his head into her arms, pulling him into her bosom like a child. Speaking into his ear, she said, “It will surely be difficult. Be strong, my boy.”
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