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Now that the adrenaline rush had passed, I was incredibly weary. The idea sounded good. I agreed. Gil may have already nodded off.

"Just keep hold of my hand, James," she said softly as I drifted into sleep.

What happened next is the part that's most difficult to tell, because it sounds so unreal, so unbelievable. I've gone over it countless times, trying to understand, but…well, let me just write it.

The next thing I knew the three of us were walking again, Carolyn slightly ahead, pulling each of us by a hand along with her. I say walking, but I hardly seemed to make any effort, almost floating along the ground, the only solid contact I felt was Carolyn's grip. I looked at Gil, surprised, and he gazed back equally baffled. Then I glanced around at the strange countryside through which we glided.

There was a twilit quality to the sky, but I couldn't say where the light came from; I could find no visible source. We walked over rolling hills, but the scene kept changing, shifting, transforming. "Like my dream…" I said, wonderingly.

Carolyn frowned. "Hush!" she whispered. "We don't want to attract attention here. There are guardians." I accepted this, and looked around me. A country lane between gnarled apple trees melted into a dismal swamp where we stepped carefully on wide tussocks. This gave way to the dunes of a gray desert where things moved out of sight below the sand. A moment later we were in a pine wood where giant black butterflies fluttered, then walking on a paved road overlooked by two, tall, decaying Victorian houses, each with one lit window. Far off we heard an anguished voice screaming in pain, and another laughing cruelly. Carolyn hurried us on.

We climbed a wide stone stairway through a dank rocky cleft, where iridescent lizards skittered away and hissed at us, teetered across a narrow glass bridge over a foaming torrent, then suddenly were topping a bare brown hill that commanded a wide view. About a mile away to the right was the most bizarre building imaginable — huge, asymmetrical, and a nightmare of bloated curves and bulging, veined towers…but it was crumbling, deserted. Carolyn seemed to take a bearing on it, hurrying us well to the left.

Ahead our path led under a massive dead tree hung with old ropes and horribly stained with what I knew was dried blood. A black shape flew up the hillside and perched on a limb, peering at us. It was the raven. It fluffed out its feathers, and dove at us, croaking, "BEWARE! TRESPASSERS! BEWARE!"

Carolyn eyed it fearfully, but it only swooped away to land beside a tall figure seated on a stone bench that I hadn't noticed before.

If he had been standing, the man would have towered over us, but he remained seated. Wisps of white hair stood up and out, adding to his height, and his ears were pointed. He merely noted us, looked disapprovingly at Carolyn, and muttered, "That one one again." He took a notebook out of his shirt pocket and made an entry. The raven launched one more dive that made us crouch, then faded awa as the scene shifted.

We were inside now, walking through endless dusty rooms in some great house. We came upon a group of oddly-clad people laughing and roaring at each other, drinks in hand, who fell silent at our approach, watching us. There was another room filled with crystalline statues, lit from within, that chimed alarmingly as we passed. Then we were on a gravel path behind a clear, roaring tumble of waterfall that smelled of thyme and tomato plants. We followed the wide branch of a tree draped in crimson moss where something invisible whispered obscene suggestions in my ear, and then we were stumbling down a dark tunnel that lurched and rolled beneath us, and out the end into the light. Glancing back, I saw we had emerged from the mouth of a giant serpent who turned to follow us, hissing. Then it, too, faded into blue mist.

"Almost there, I think," Carolyn muttered. The road ahead looked more familiar. "Gil, is this near your house?"

Gil had been very quiet, as if he didn't believe any of it, but now he glanced around. "Yes," he said, "not far."

Carolyn looked relieved. We rounded a bend, and my feet began to dig into the road, as the first gray glow before dawn crept through the trees around us. "We'll be okay now," she said, smiling gently at us, her eyes bloodshot, and cheeks stained with dried tears. We gazed stupidly at each other, and wondered how we had managed it.

We rested there for a few minutes, and as the predawn light grew, I felt there was someone in the road, watching us. Gil looked up at the same time, and Carolyn gasped.

There was a strong presence about the figure, an unseen aura. There was no looking away from him. We strained to make him out, and in a minute we could see a man standing casually watching us with arms folded. I looked again, and now it seemed more like a woman, despite the man's jacket and tie she wore. Dark hair carefully coiffed back in a medium-length cut that was equally ambiguous. The eyebrows and full lips stood out in a pale face, and he/she gazed at us with a sardonic, knowing smile.

"I'm afraid this won't do at all, daughter," she said, and her low voice ran a chill up my spine, but was no help in deciding the gender question.

Carolyn stepped forward, bristling. "What do you mean? I'm not your daughter, and you're certainly not my father!"

"Not in the traditional sense," she replied with a mocking grin, "but have you ever wondered why your mother left your father?"

"Who are you, and how could you possibly know anything about that?" Gil said, stepping forward, but Carolyn silenced him with a gesture.

"Since you ask, my handsome fellow, I shall tell you. Your mother had a dream, Carolyn. A very attractive dream, a very captivating partner. She awoke with great reluctance, and began that very day to remove herself from your father's affection. She went to sleep each night full of hope, but the dream never returned. Nine months later, you were born. Born into power. I have been watching you, daughter, and you have used my gift well…alas, too well."

"Bitch. Lying BITCH!" Carolyn was furious, beside herself.

The woman chuckled and stroked Carolyn's blonde hair. "We are alike in that, aren't we, child. Bleached, isn't it?" Carolyn knocked the hand away, but I could see she was shaken.

"Forgive me, I have been ignoring your thralls, or should we say escorts?" He/She looked Gil over, and he flushed. "This one was cleverly done. I applaud you. Never touched the boy, yet here he is."

Gil spoke with difficulty. "It's not like that. We're friends."

"Indeed," the man replied, and gazed full into Gil's eyes. "And would you be my friend as well?" A look of surprise crossed Gil's face, and he smiled, then went slowly down on one knee, bowing his head.

"With greatest pleasure, sir."

"And the other," she said, turning her attention to me. "The other has given satisfaction to both my sister and I." She looked into my eyes, and suddenly I was filled with shameless desire. I wanted this beautiful woman more than anything I had ever wanted in my life. Carolyn, standing beside me, was forgotten, nothing. The softly glowing figure smiled at me, and the smile was completely without mercy, but I didn't care — I wanted her all the more.

"Stop it," Carolyn said. "Stop it! STOP IT!"

She/he looked away, and I was filled with shame.

Continue with Merciless Beauty