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Sometimes a dream is just a dream, but sometimes it's much, much more.

Fox Mulder turned the key in the door, opened, stepped inside, flung his jacket in the general direction of the coat tree in the corner, and he got down to the business at hand. Positioned at a perfect angle to his desk, he reached to the front and plucked his instrument from its perch, poised as it was in a position of honor. This was the moment he would write history. His mind was focused on the momentous occasion when the door opened again, this time admitting his lovely partner, the diminutive and remarkable Dana Scully. It was one of those rare instances when even she took a temporary back seat.

Today was finally the day, he thought solemnly. He was finally going to do this. His hazel eyes narrowed and he thought he felt sweat bead on his brow as he pondered the approach he should take. If he wasn't careful, this would fail as dismally as every previous attempt, and he wasn't ready to settle for that.

"You got the camera, Scully?" he asked.

She held up the video recorder, already in her hand and primed to use. "I'm ready whenever you are."

He took a deep breath, murmuring a prayer under his breath, and gracefully arced the Nerf basketball into the air, its golden orb swishing dead center through the net. He flung up his arms in the universal symbol for triumph, rising, performing a bad slow-motion replay of Rocky Balboa's unrhythmic dance on the tile floor of the office, with his partner dutifully recording his every intentionally bad move.

"Half court, Scully! He crowed. "Three points!"

"Very impressive." Both agents whirled at the familiar voice.

"S-Sir!" Scully stammered, her palm slapping the button to stop the whir of the video camera.

"At ease, Scully, you're still off the clock and I'm not here to chew you out. I came down here to bring you a case file. It's a missing persons matter - five missing persons, to be specific - but something about it just doesn't sit right with me. I'd like to have the two of you look through it and let me know if anything jumps out at you."

The AD walked over and plucked up the miniature basketball, perching it on his steepled fingers, and he shrugged. Just before he exited the office, he threw the ball over his shoulder, not even looking back. The sphere climbed nearly to the ceiling before dropping neatly into the basket on the opposite wall. It should have been an impossible shot, even for someone watching what they were doing.

But it wasn't the shot that was raising the hairs on the back of the two agents' necks. Years of working on the X-Files had developed muscles of a different sort. As they spread the contents of the manila folder across the top of the room's sole desk, they knew without words that this supposedly mundane case was anything but.

Great Smoky Mountains 27 hours later

The sleek gray sedan burst up through the layer of fog, cresting to a lush portrait of rural America. Nestled within the purring vehicle, the two FBI agents gazed at the inundating waves of earth and trees that rolled outward as far as the eye could see. With an end to the rain, pale tendrils of mist now snaked through the deep green of summer's mature foliage. Humidity clung to every pore and permeated every thread, welding clothing to skin and pasting hair to scalp. Only the luxurious musk of the damp forest cathedral, blowing in through the car's windows, was enough to keep the city dwellers from turning to the relative comfort of air conditioning. It had been miles since they'd seen anything resembling civilization, save the dark ribbon of gravel that beckoned them silently onward. Now and then, the dilapidated skeleton of a barn or farmhouse rose from the verdant carpet, the haunting reminder of man's impermanence. There was a holiness to the pristine surroundings, a regal reminder that nature would march onward long after man departed.

Mulder's eyes focused on a weathered mile marker, its faded paint testament to man's abandonment.
"Just a little further," he announced softly, his hushed tones giving reverence to the sanctity of their environment. His partner's delicate nod confirmed both words and mood. Her hands were folded over their slender bible, the surveyor's detail of the remote paradise. No tourist's atlas would document the unpaved wilderness, for all of its beauty. It was too inconvenient, too distant, too lacking in modern facilities.

"What do you think happened to them, Mulder?" Her lapis eyes settled on him, her emotions carefully hidden away. It didn't matter to him. He knew her, and it always gave him a little, private thrill at her unvoiced confidence. She asked, fully prepared to argue; but she asked. If she had known how much it really said, she probably never would ask again.

He admitted, "I don't know. Could have been a lot of things. Maybe they just got lost. Maybe they were abducted. Maybe they took a collective walk off of a cliff, or drowned." He didn't believe it, and he could see in the slant of her chin that neither did she. Come to think of it, his uber-pragmatic partner seemed a bit distracted on this case, almost like she had a connection to the surrounding woods. He realized that her eyes darted nervously into the dappled shadows between the oak and sycamore. She looked like she was searching for something. Something that made her very uneasy.

"What is it, Scully?" he prompted, more curious than really frightened.

"What's what?" she replied, eyebrow arced in a question mark. The slight defiance in her voice cheered him. Frightened, maybe, but not bowed.

"You're a million miles away. Can I come along for the ride?"

She shook her head. "I don't know what you're talking about."

He didn't answer.
The road had widened slightly, and thinning trees offered a glimpse of shingles and weathered wood. A skinny old man was bent over, apparently clipping to add to an already large sheaf of roses. There had been no mention of a neighbor, and nothing was marked on the surveyor's map, which offered up intimate detail of virtually everything else in the region.

"We should talk to him," Scully calculated aloud. "He might have seen something."

Mulder shivered despite the heat, suddenly fighting the urge to turn around and go home. He was reminded that five people had disappeared into the landscape less than two weeks earlier, and a deeper search yielded a history of such inexplicable departures. Fox Mulder wasn't easily intimidated, but just now he was fully ready to crawl under the car seat, jump into a lake, even walk through fire to get away from the invisible evil that threatened to suffocate him. And just as suddenly as it had arrived, it was gone, and he was normal again. It was as though he was discarded and the powerful feeling moved on to the next victim.

Scully was unbuckling her seat belt before the car had fully come to a stop. She opened her door and called out a greeting to the old man, who slowly straightened his aged body and turned a weather-beaten face toward them.
"Beautiful roses you have there", she commented, trying to shake off the feeling that had come over her ever since they had begun their ascent into the mountains of Tennessee.

The old man nodded, looking suspiciously at the two city folk. In an otherwise nondescript face, a pair of aqua blue eyes stared out at them, unblinking in their relentless scrutiny. Scully found herself thinking that they held many secrets that had yet to be unlocked. She forced the fanciful notion out of her head and held out her hand in greeting. Mulder had come to a stop behind her and was pulling his badge out of the pocket of his jacket.

"FBI", the old man read as he leaned toward the badge, ignoring Scullys proffered hand. "What you be wanting here in my mountains?" he asked them.

Mulder put the badge away; squinting into the sun that had just begun to peek out from behind the clouds.
"I am Agent Mulder and this is my partner Agent Scully. We are looking for the Anderson cabin. Do you know where it is?"

The man thrust his thumb out toward a steep ridge behind him. It was blanketed in trees and there was no road leading up it. "That there is Anderson Ridge. They lived there on the lake." He turned and spit a long, dark stream of tobacco into the grass by his feet. Scully hid a look of distaste.

"Would you mind giving us your name?" she asked him, her eyes wandering down his faded T-shirt and sagging blue jeans.

"Isaiah Crawford", he said, spitting again.

"Mr. Crawford", Mulder said, "Did you know the Anderson family? Were you aware that they have disappeared?"

The old man shrugged. "We ain't that neighborly. I'm too old to climb that steep ridge, and they didn't make no effort to come my way."

Scully scanned the area, her hand shielding her eyes. "Is there a road that goes up there?"

The old man laughed, revealing rotting teeth amidst the tobacco juice. "Nope. You wanna go up it, you have to hike." He turned around and went back to clipping his roses, effectively dismissing them. Scully turned to Mulder and shrugged.

"Where do we park our car?" he asked the man. Without looking back at them, Mr. Crawford pointed a gnarled finger to a patch of grass on the other side of the road theyd just traveled.

The two agents headed to their vehicle and Mulder snapped open the trunk.
"Charming", he commented when they were out of earshot. He looked through their bags. Were going to have to devise a way to carry our things up there.
Scully nodded. There didnt seem to be much choice other than to take only what was necessary and stuff it into their overnight bags. Already, the air was heating up several notches from the sun that was piercing through the clouds, and Scully took her windbreaker off and stuffed it into her bag. She wore a light-colored T-shirt and khaki slacks, with sturdy hiking boots on her feet. She glanced at Mulder in his similar attire. Over them, there were black thunderheads in the distance, promising a break in the humidity. Scully quickly pulled things from her larger suitcase and packed them in the smaller one, zipping it up tightly and lifting it out of the trunk. Mulder had finished with his and stood to the side, ready for their trek upward. They felt the old mans eyes upon them as they walked away from his cabin and toward the woods.

A cacophony of bugs sang in the trees as they started up the steep ridge. Patches of pine needles made it slippery in places, and several times the agents almost lost their footing and landed on their asses. Scully was becoming short of breath and stopped to lean against a tree, glancing at her partner. He, too, appeared to be winded. Dark circles of sweat had spread underneath his arms, and his neck glistened with moisture. Scully was glad that she had pulled her hair up off her neck since she, too, had begun to perspire. The thickness of the air was oppressive and Scully found herself wishing for even a hint of a breeze.

By silent, mutual consent, they began walking again, the way becoming steep and treacherous. They grasped onto roots to pull their way up, and as Mulder reached the top of the summit, he reached down and lent a hand to Scully, pulling her upward to stand beside him.

The view from where they stood was spectacular. They looked to the valley below with its rolling hills and green fields. The old mans cabin looked very small with its thin trail of smoke coming from the chimney. Scully imagined that he must cook in the fireplace, since he certainly wouldn't require a fire for warmth on a day like this.

A fairly short descent through the woods brought them into a clearing and they could see the lake shimmering several yards ahead of them. It was large and evidently went on for miles. A crackle in the undergrowth caused Mulder to look down and he grabbed Scullys hand in warning. A ruddy-colored snake slithered through the grass, its head triangular in shape.

"A copperhead", she commented, as it slid into a rotten log. As a child she had been deathly afraid of snakes, and she wasnt overly fond of them now. Mulder let go of her hand and they continued on. Presently, the woods thinned out and they approached the lake.

"I dont see a cabin", Mulder noted. He shielded his eyes and looked about.

"Look, Scully, theres a houseboat out on the edge of the water. Do you suppose thats where they lived?"

Scully looked toward the floating vessel. "Well, the man did say that the Andersons lived on the lake", she stated. "I dont see a cabin or a house on it." She scanned the woods for a moment before heading toward the water.

A small dock stood beside the craft, and Mulder stepped onto it, the wood creaking beneath him. Scully came up behind. They had set their bags in the grass by the waters edge.

Taking the railing of the boat in his hand, Mulder hopped over and onto the deck, putting out a hand to help Scully aboard. They wandered the area, looking for anything that could tell them about the people who had lived here for ten years and then disappeared completely.

"The file says that there were five of them. The parents, who were in their fifties, and three sons ranging in age from eighteen to twenty-three," Scully replied, peaking through the windows. Mulder tried the door and found it unlocked. He glanced at Scully and then opened it, revealing a darkened interior smelling stale with neglect.
Scully's nose wrinkled at the musty scent. Living on the water lent a certain air of its own, anyway, but the houseboat carried its own rank odor, like someone forgot to take out the trash. Or a body.
A thorough search turned up no corpse, nor any sign - other than the smell - that there had ever BEEN a corpse.
FBI-instilled expertise took over. She and Mulder were a seasoned team, working in tandem to connect the dots in this puzzle, to determine if there was any sign of foul play hidden to searches by previous authorities. Dusts for fingerprints hadn't turned up anything of value. None of the family had occasion to be fingerprinted, and if there had been a killer and he or she left anything behind, there was no record of his or her prints.

Mulder was focused on what was effectively the living room, his practiced eyes taking in every detail. A photographic memory allowed him to recall the exact angle of the books on the coffee table, the degree to which the curtains opened, the number of empty soft drink cans in the trash, and the TV Guide upside down on the end table. Gingerly, he picked up the magazine, glancing at the page.

"Hey, Scully, I think we can establish a pretty close date." He held up the page, where a program note had been circled in indelible marker. "Two weeks ago Saturday, somebody had a date with women's wrestling. It was a great match, too!"

His partner coughed. "Women's wrestling, Mulder?"

He nodded enthusiastically. "Come on, Scully. It's an athletic event. Sports. Healthy stuff."

She scowled, averting her gaze to their surroundings. "Not for these folks," she muttered. "Why don't we find a spot to set up our tents. Hopefully one without snakes. I don't want to wait until the last minute."

She reached into her purse to grab a pen and her note pad and her fingers brushed over something unfamiliar. The encounter sent a shiver through her, and she glanced into the small bag, searching for the foreign object, but found nothing out of the ordinary. She shrugged it off, deciding it was nothing. Pen and paper in hand, she jotted down a few notes and then used the rope moorings to steady her quick hop back to the little jetty, a little more relieved than was rational when her feet touched solid ground again.
Something oppressive wrapped this place, something she couldn't identify. It insinuated itself into her heart and mind like the heat that permeated every cubic inch of their surroundings.

Once on land, though, her eyes wandered to the lake, and just for a moment she was tempted to jump in, clothes and all. The placid waters promised cool respite from the mercury's relentless ascent. Reluctantly, she shook off the idea, though she halfway decided that once they had set up camp, after dark, after her partner was asleep, she might take that swim, after all.

As they walked up the embankment with their bags, Mulder said, "Scully, I can't believe you don't consider wrestling a sport."

"Not the kind of wrestling you see on TV, Mulder. It's all staged." Scully reached up and wiped the sweat from her brow. The humidity was stifling. They paused and unpacked their respective tents, setting them up in a clearing.

"But that's the beauty of it, Scully! That's exactly what makes it a sport. The moves the entire way it is staged. In fact, I would go so far as to call it an art."

Scully snorted. "Yeah, right." It was growing dark and she was feeling more and more edgy. Her clothes were sticking to her, the houseboat had told them nothing, and they were out in the woods with a bunch of snakes. Things couldn't get a whole lot worse.

"Mulder, I'm just going to lie down in my tent awhile, okay? We can't get much done in the dark." She crawled inside the shelter and zipped it shut. Sometimes she just needed a little space from her hyperactive partner.

"Okay, Scully," she heard him say. "I'm just going to look around."

Scully didn't realize that she was going to sleep, but before she knew it, she awakened and her watch told her it was after 2 am. She was still sticky with sweat, and the sound of the bugs singing was almost deafening. Their constant whining rose to a crescendo before waning back down only to begin again.

She unzipped her tent and stepped out. There wasn't a breeze to be had, but a full moon hung lazily over the lake and Scully could see the water rippling invitingly. She glanced over at Mulders tent. It was zipped up tight.
Smiling, she made her way down to the lake. Just a quick dip, that's all she needed to feel better. Reaching the dock, she climbed on and walked past the houseboat that swayed gently in the water. She looked around once more, not that she exactly expected to see anyone other than Mulder. They truly were in the middle of nowhere. Finding herself alone, she grasped the tail of her shirt and pulled it up over her head. Then she slipped out of her pants. She stood in her underwear a moment, contemplating the fact that there very well could be snakes in the water.
Comfort won out, though, and Scully slipped almost soundlessly into the lake and began to swim.

It felt wonderful. She floated on her back and let the smooth water play over her skin. A low rumble of thunder sounded in the distance and Scully smiled to think that a storm might break the heat soon.

She lay like that for a long time looking up at the full moon. She could see the dark clouds moving in. Lightning brightened the sky briefly and Scully thought she had better get out. Warnings from her mother in childhood sounded in her mind. Don't ever swim alone. What if she got a cramp? Mulder would wake up in the morning and she'd be gone. He'd probably think an alien ship had landed and taken her, until her body washed ashore and told the real story. Half-eaten by the fish. Scully shivered and mentally shook herself. What was wrong with her, anyway? She wasn't usually so given to morbid daydreaming.

Suddenly, she felt something smooth and long brush against her thigh. She gasped. One word popped into her head.
Snake!

<Calm down, Dana. It could be a fish> she told herself. But she knew it was too long to be a fish too long and too thin. She felt it again and let out a scream. She remembered reading somewhere that Water Moccasins lived in nests in lakes and sometimes attacked swimmers that happened upon them. She'd be dead in moments. She began to swim for the dock and felt the creature on her stomach, sliding by her.

"Oh God," she groaned.

She was beginning to panic, and she knew that was the wrong thing to do in this instance. She couldn't touch the bottom where she was. She felt the thing by her arm and she opened her mouth and yelled.

"MULDER!"

She tensed herself, expecting to be bitten at any moment. She started toward the dock again and then felt the smooth skin against her once more.

"Mulder!" she yelled again.

She could feel hysteria rising in her as she pictured the serpent touching her body beneath the waters surface.
Scully heard her name shouted from the woods.

"Here! In the lake!" She moved toward the dock again. It seemed miles away.

Mulder came running down and onto the dock. Without hesitation, he dove in, swimming toward her with sure strokes.

"Scully!" his head bobbed up beside her. He grasped her around the waist. "Scully, what is it?"

Scully was peering down into the water. Her arm came up around Mulders neck and he pulled her with him in the water until they were close enough to the dock that he could stand.

"A snake! More than one, it kept touching me!" she looked down at Mulders surprised face. His hair was plastered onto his head and she suddenly realized that he didn't have a shirt on.

"A snake? You're screaming because of a snake?"

Scully wiggled in his arms when she thought she saw it swim by again. "Please, Mulder. Get me out of here!"

Mulder shifted her in his arms and then lifted her onto the dock where she stood up and watched him hoist himself up and onto the mooring.

"Mulder!" Scully turned sideways and averted her eyes. "You're naked!"

"It's hot! I was sleeping naked and heard you screaming. Hell, Scully, you scared the shit out of me!"
He looked her over. Her silk panties and bra were drenched and perfectly see-through in the light of the full moon. He looked away and swiped his face with his hand.

"I didn't know you were afraid of snakes, Scully." Even as he said it, something in the deep recesses of his memory nudged him. "And don't you know you should never go swimming alone? "

Scully sighed. "I..I just don't like them on me, Mulder. I couldn't see, there was more than one of them!" The note of panic in her voice was not lost on Mulder and he stood up, wrapping an arm around her shoulder.

"Okay, Scully. Lets go back up to our camp." A roll of thunder shook the ground. Scully nodded and started walking, careful not to let her eyes wander to Mulders nude form.

A streak of lightning darted from the sky and the thunder sounded again. Drops of rain began to fall, and the two agents quickened their pace. By the time they reached their tents, the wind had started and it was hailing.

Scully shuddered as she fought to get comfortable on the portable cot. While her late-night swim HAD cooled her off physically, she was still shaking. She wasn't sure if it was more from anger or from her frightening encounter in the water.She would never forgive her partner for summarily dismissing her terror.

The rain beat against the treated fabric of her tent, a heavy drum of big drops. Rising winds whipped at the material, setting the frame swaying.

More than once, she found herself looking to the floor, sweeping her flashlight across the canvas in search of snakes. The door was zipped tightly shut and the fabric would preclude such an intrusion, but she couldn't help her irrational fears.

When lightning flashed, she gasped. She had caught a glimpse of a shadow outside, the enormous upraised head and body of a gargantuan serpent. She knew it was a hallucination, probably brought on by her own phobia driven to extremes. She buried her head in the sleeping bag despite the heat.

The storm outside rose in intensity, the rain turning to hail, and the combination of wind and hail finally collapsed the tent over her, subjecting her body to battering by the ice pellets. She was still fighting with the folds of canvas when she heard the zipper and Mulder's hand grabbed her wrists, pulling her free of the fabric prison. He pushed her onto the houseboat, yelling over the winds for her to get inside. He yanked their bags from the interior of the tents and ran under the little ship's awnings just as the wind carried Scully's ruined tent away into the darkness. His own followed shortly after, leaving the two bedraggled agents to stand staring after them.

Scully shivered involuntarily, arms wrapped around herself. Mulder's hand on her bare back reminded her of her state of undress, and she grabbed her bag with a muttered "Thanks." She ducked into the darkness of the houseboat, her mind still reeling from the bizarre turn of circumstances.

She didn't turn around when she heard the soft scratch of a match and the followed glow from the kerosene lamp Mulder lit. He reached around to hand her the light. "Go get into something dry," he offered chivalrously, gesturing to the open door a few steps beyond her.

She realized that she was being enormously ungracious, but her mind and body were still in shock. Rather than snap back at him, she nodded without turning and she stepped into the tiny bedroom, closing the door behind her. She quickly stripped off her sopping undergarments and drew
on a soft cotton tee shirt and panties, stepping into the still-unmade bunk that was closest to her. Finally dry, and feeling more than a little sheepish, she called to her partner that it was safe to enter.

Mulder had pulled on a pair of boxers; a detail that left Scully feeling decidedly relieved. She didn't want to see him naked again, not now, not in her current state of mind. She was already upset, and didn't want to let her mind and body follow any meandering pathways that could complicate things even further. *We're on a missing persons case*, she reminded herself sternly. *Not a pajama party*. She drew a weary hand over her eyes as she heard her partner slide into the opposite bunk. There was no point arguing over sleeping quarters, she thought pragmatically. They were merely two adults, friends, making the best of an emergency situation. A little voice inside her was cackling maniacally at her rationalization.

"Oh, be quiet!" she whispered to herself.

I didn't say anything!" Mulder protested mildly.

"Good night, Mulder." she replied.

It was another hour before the storm abated enough that Scully could fall into a fitful sleep. By then she was fully dry, though the rain had cooled the air enough to permit a little more comfort. The cicadas and crickets were singing again, and the relentless waves had calmed with the fall of the winds.

She drifted into a dream, letting her body be lulled by the rocking movement of the houseboat, her mind finally relaxing. The closed screen door would keep out the bugs and the snakes. She felt decidedly more secure here than out in the flimsy tents. And whether she'd admit it or
not, a part of the security was knowing that Mulder was an arm's length away, in the other bunk.

The dream world was less than kind to her, though; she found herself walking through a pit of snakes, Indiana Jones style, a hundred thousand hissing bodies squirming at her feet, forked tongues snapping out, flicking against her bare skin. She had nowhere to run, nowhere to step
without walking atop the slithering animals. The semidarkness around her made it difficult to ascertain exactly where she was. Was she in a cave? Underground? Inside a building? She jumped as a large constrictor wound around her ankle, its cool musculature clenching there like a piece of living jewelry. She yelped involuntarily, her voice a small echo in what must have been a large chamber. She was shivering, still in her damp satin underwear. She shook her ankle to try and loosen the creature's hold, but suddenly there was a heavier, raspy sound, the thick crunch of sand being moved aside by a large object, and her eyes moved up...

...And up... and up. Her lips trembled at the monstrosity that loomed a good six feet over her head, its roughly triangular head easily three feet across at the hinge of its jaw. The gigantic serpent swayed hypnotically
before her gaze, back and forth to the silent rhythm of a charmer's flute heard by only itself. Powerful coils spread out behind it, glistening black and bronze and pale gold in the subdued, diffused light. Midnight eyes were set into either side of the creature's head, gemstone bright and
clear.

She was no longer capable of movement or even thought. The animal leaned toward her, and she realized from a distance that her own body was mimicking the snake's dance, her eyes locked to its unblinking orbs, her skin raked by its impossibly long tongue that flicked a path along her
thighs, then belly, breasts, and face. When the pointed tongue touched her cheek, it set off a high-pitched scream that she only marginally realized was coming from her own throat. And at the onset of the scream, the animal lunged out, its powerful body locking around her in a vise grip
that knocked the air from her lungs instantly. She screamed again, but the effort left her dizzy, and unable to draw another breath, she fought against the darkness that wavered around her.

Her lungs were bursting, her hands flailing uselessly at her much stronger
opponent, until finally something reached through her panic... A familiar,
urgent voice...

"Scully, it's me! It's all right! It's just a dream!"
She opened her eyes, dimly aware that she was drenched in sweat and it was daylight and her fully dressed partner was sitting on the edge of her bunk. She was trembling violently, and his mildly amused look just pissed her off royally.

"Snakes, Scully. You were yelling about snakes."

She was furious, partly at herself, partly at him. She shoved him, gaining a bit of satisfaction when he landed on the floor on his butt. She threw a pillow at him, growling, "Get out!"

He stood, his face suddenly serious. When he reached for her, she glowered and raised a fist. "So help me, Mulder...!"

He caught her fist easily, and her other hand, pushing both hands back against the mattress, and her back with it, until the short tee shirt exposed a good portion of her belly. His fingers trailed over her skin, but the look on his face offset the tingles his touch sent along her flesh. She glanced down to where he touched, and her eyes went wide. Along her ribs, tender spots were already beginning to discolor, and subtle indentations in her skin marked
a huge snakeskin pattern that coiled around her three times.

"My God, Scully" he said. She pushed his hands away and sat up, sliding off the bunk on trembling legs.

"Get out, Mulder," she repeated, softly this time.

He blinked at her from his seat on her bed. But
Something in her eyes made him stand and silently leave the room. She turned to the door and locked it, then, with shaking hands, she lifted the T-shirt that she had worn to bed over her head and pulled it off.

There was no doubt about it. Her ribs were now discolored with bruising and an odd, scaly pattern was imprinted on her skin. A shiver ran up her spine and she resisted the urge to burst into tears. Her dream had been frighteningly real and her blood still coursed abnormally fast through her veins. She leaned against the wall, catching her breath. She closed her eyes and counted to sixty, then opened them and took in as much air as her lungs would hold, finally letting it out slowly through her mouth.
Scully held her hands out in front of her and was relieved to see that they had stopped shaking. She had worked hard to be her partners equal, and she wasn't going to give up on it now, even when the terror inside her begged her to run for protection and security. She turned to the bathroom and went to take a shower.

All of her adult life she had squelched the overwhelming fear she had for snakes. She had gotten to the point where she could look at them without showing her feelings, and even touch one if the situation demanded it. She did not know why the almost-forgotten childhood fear had come back to strike her in such a debilitating manner.

A half-hour later, she climbed up to find Mulder. Her face was carefully neutral and, typical to her nature; she completely ignored what had happened earlier.
Mulder watched her with a mixture of wariness and concern, but he didnt bring up the subject.

"Shall we explore the woods?" Scully asked, picking up some bread and spreading peanut butter all over it. They sat on the padded seats at the back of the houseboat, the open cooler between them.

"Sounds good," he replied, balling up his napkin and then throwing it in the plastic bag they used for trash. The boat rocked gently on the rippling water, and the agents sat for a moment listening to the crows some distance away sparring with a Bluejay as Scully drank her carton of skim milk.

When they had finished their breakfast, they stepped onto the mooring and walked to the shore, climbing the small embankment that led into the woods.

As early as it was, the heat was nearly oppressive. The wet ground was warming under the bright morning sun, and a blanket of mist rose around their feet. Scully concentrated on her surroundings, diligently searching for clues to the missing family. Mulder split off from her and traveled a distance to the right, farther away from the edge of the ridge that they had climbed up on their way here. Scully took a route upward; traveling along the steep embankment that led down to the old man's cabin.

A peaceful silence prevailed as they separately went about their investigation. Scully could hear Mulders footsteps in the pine needles and low brush a distance away for quite awhile until they finally got so far away from each other that even that small sound disappeared.

Scully stopped and leaned heavily against a tree trunk. This case was puzzling, to say the least. An entire family disappeared without a trace. The houseboat showed no sign of forced entry or hasty retreat. No foul play was evident, and the hour she had just spent walking into the woods had proved fruitless. She wiped her sweating brow with the back of her hand and gazed off the way she had come. The bugs had taken up their incessant chorus again and Scully felt a headache emerging at the base of her skull.
Tentatively, she took the first step downward to retrace her steps. She was at the top of a rather steep rise, and she could see the Tennessee mountains far beyond, the lake sprawled out beneath them.

A sudden sound halted her in her tracks. The hair stood up on the back of her neck, and Scully reached around for the gun she had tucked in the back of her slacks. A low growl caused her to spin around and train her weapon in its direction.
She stood like that for several minutes, her gun held in her outstretched arms, until something large and dark rose from the dense shrubbery several yards away from her. Scully sucked in her breath. She had suspected a wild cat, or at the worst, a black bear, which, she knew, could be fairly easily scared away. What she saw was the largest, fiercest grizzly bear she could ever have imagined, reared up on its hind legs. It absolutely towered over her, its head larger than three of her own.

Obviously agitated, it swung its great head back and forth on its neck, its humungous paws swiping at the air. The sight of the dagger-like claws sent Scullys heart racing.
She thought about shooting it, but if the bullet didn't kill the animal immediately, she was doomed. It would charge her and there was absolutely no way she could escape it. Terrified, she rolled her eyes right and left, trying to find an answer to this situation.

Scully was frantically searching her memory, wondering if she was supposed to drop and play dead or make lots of noise to try and scare the creature away. It became a moot point when the beast lunged forward and she fired,
praying desperately that her shot would land true. She swore she heard TWO shots, though, and still the animal loped toward her. She was trembling so hard she would never be certain if she actually pulled the trigger next or not. There was at least one shot she DIDN'T fire, and the
mountain of fur, sinew, and deadly muscle finally dropped, landing with a final shuddering expulsion of its breath. The creature's paw actually brushed her as it descended.

She was not a shrinking violet, nor given to either hysterics nor fainting, but her knees gave way of their own volition, her constitution shredded by first, the inexplicable manifestation of her nightmare that
morning, and the subsequent encounter with the bear. She managed to push herself a few paces away from the immobile carcass of the enormous carnivore. To her credit, she didn't cry. She wasn't capable at just that moment.

Mulder approached her slowly; his weapon still trained on the fallen beast, his senses on high alert for any sign of the animal's recovery. He didn't bother asking Scully if she was all right, nor waiting around for her to argue. He slid an arm under hers and lifted her with a grunt, walking backward away from the bear, trying to keep one eye on the grizzly and one on their uneven footing.

He didn't stop until the creature was well out of sight. Only then did he allow Scully the respite of sitting down, her back leaning against the mossy side of a gnarled oak. He knelt next to her, his performing a silent, worried search. He didn't speak, and for a moment she was sure he
was going to chew her out. For what, she didn't know.
Then she realized that he was gazing slightly over her head and behind her, his gaze fixed on something a few paces away. She started to rise, but he shook his head, moving slowly, as though stalking some deadly prey.

She swallowed convulsively, her hands moving to her weapon. She pushed herself up, taking a deep breath, forcing her knees to stop knocking. Regardless, she couldn't let Mulder take on god knew what, not without backup. She stepped out from the relative shelter of the tree and followed her partner's silent stalk, until she watched him re-holster his gun. His expression remained serious, though, and she could see a hesitation in his eyes.

He didn't want her to see something. That overprotectiveness shook her fully from her reverie. She marched forward, the scent of crushed grass rising underfoot, until she could see the lumpy, whitish mass that had drawn his attention. At her approach, he gingerly kicked at the strange mound. Apparently satisfied that it wasn't going to bite him, he reached down and picked it up. Scully nearly became ill on the spot.

He held up a strip of material that resembled crinkled cellophane, its pattern unmistakable. It a snakeskin. An enormous snakeskin. His eyes narrowed and his mouth opened, then closed, then opened again.

Wordlessly, he drew the thin film outstretched.

Scully actually stumbled backward.

A snakeskin, by the scaly pattern veined over its translucent surface. A snakeskin with the arms and legs, fingers and toes of a man.

Mulder was loath to tell Scully what to do, but she looked like she was ready to topple over. He decided it was worth the risk of bodily harm for him to take her arm and steer her back to the houseboat. He wasn't sure if it was a good thing or a bad thing that she didn't argue.

It was past lunchtime by the time they hopped onto their impromptu accommodations. Neither of them was overly interested in food after two horrifying wildlife encounters in the same morning. Mulder had discovered what was left of their tents; the sturdy canvas torn so badly it looked
more like it had been ripped apart by random strikes of a dull knife. Whatever got into a fight with the tents, the tents lost.

The darkening skies grumbled again, and they debated whether to stay put or to hike back to the car. Their cell phones were out of range here, and they needed to check in with Skinner to let him know they were all right.
Given the things Mulder had seen, he wasn't overly enthusiastic about a walk just now. He could tell that Scully's ribs ached by the way she tried to hide it, her elbows tucked at her sides, her breath coming in short, shallow puffs. Her face was drawn and pale, and dark smudges of exhaustion underscored her eyes.

"You could have broken ribs," he commented softly, breaking the mutual silence at last. "We should have a
doctor check you."

She bit her lip. "Nothing's broken, I'm just a little sore." At his raised eyebrow, "I'm fine, Mulder. I'm just tired."

"Do you want to try and sleep for a while?" he offered solicitously.

"There's some canned food in the kitchen, it'll still be good. Why don't you rest for a while and I'll make us some lunch." It was a gently couched order and he didn't miss the brief flicker of rebellion in her eyes.
He could see the doubt that also stampeded through her mind, and he smiled in spite of herself. "I CAN cook, Scully. I take my chances with extraterrestrials, vampires, conspiracies, and the Bureau ghouls. I don't mess with food poisoning, too."

He knew she had seen the remnants of his cooking piled in his kitchen sink from time to time. Beanie weenies, canned spaghetti, the occasional condensed soup or - once in a while - vegetable stew. Not gourmet, maybe, but Mulder knew that neither was her stomach going to go for another peanut butter sandwich right now.

She tilted her head to one side, yawning. "All right, but I'm not doing dishes."

He rolled his eyes in exaggerated capitulation. "Fine," he harrumphed.

She wouldn't sleep, but she did stretch out on the built-in sofa, clicking on the battery-powered television set. Funny to think that their cell phones were out of range, but the TV got at least fuzzy reception. She turned the sound down to a low drone, its familiar atonal buzz working like an electronic muscle relaxer.

"Mulder, what was that... thing we found in the woods? Was it a snakeskin?"

"I don't know," he admitted, "But I'll bet Isaiah Crawford does."

A few hundred yards into the woods, the carcass of the bear shuddered, the underlying tissues knotting and squirming beneath it's shaggy coat. Slowly, a tear developed along the soft underbelly, widening to expose gelatinous musculature within. Like a bird struggling to escape its shell, the unformed mass continued to writhe within its encasement, until finally a long, slender shape emerged,
flexing its fingers in the warm, moist air, heaving itself onto the wild grass, panting with the exertion of its own birth.

Scully must have dozed off, because the next thing she knew Mulder was standing over her, softly calling her name. She jerked, and then omitted a cry of pain. Her ribs were so sore she wanted to weep.

Mulder sat down on the edge of her cot. "Scully, let me take a look at those ribs. We need to make sure none are broken." Scully nodded and slowly pulled up her T-shirt. Mulder gazed down at her torso, now purplish in places. The odd snake-like imprints were fading, but still visible. He had never seen anything quite like it. It was as if a large reptile had squeezed her so hard that it had left a mark.
And then there was the matter of her ribs. He reached out and put his fingers gently on her skin and felt the gently curving bones, beginning at the bottom. Scully winced, and his eyes met hers.

"Your hands are cold," she said.

"Cold hands, warm heart, Scully", he said, and she smiled. He continued probing her rib cage, coming to her bra and pushing it upwards so he could reach underneath it. Scully watched him, her breath coming softly and the only sound in the room the soft lap of the waves against the boat.
Finally, he put her shirt down and said, "None of them seem to be broken, Scully, but you have definite bruising."

She bit her lip. "Maybe I did something during my swim", she ventured.

Mulder got up off the bed without commenting. He was beginning to weave his own theory, but he'd keep it to himself for the time being.

"I'm going down to see the old man", he replied, sticking his weapon in the waistband of his slacks.

Scully rose off the bed. "I'm going with you", she stated, getting her gun.

"I think it would be better if you stayed here and rested, Scully. You're only going to get more sore if you move around."

"Mulder, you aren't running off without me on your back", she told him.

"I dont think I can carry you down the ridge, Scully" he quipped and she gave him a look.

"All right, I can't stop you from coming." He opened the door and she followed.

The way down was even more difficult than it had been going up. The dense undergrowth was slippery in places, and the agents found themselves on their asses more than once. At a particularly steep place, Mulder lost his footing and tumbled several feet, landing with a thud against a tree.
Scully scrambled down after him.

"Are you all right, Mulder?" she asked when she was beside him.

He winced in pain. "I've twisted my ankle", he said, reaching for it.

Scully pushed his hands away and pulled his sneaker off, and then his sock. With delicate fingers, she palpitated his ankle and the top of his foot. It was already beginning to swell.

"Ow!" he jumped.

"I think it's sprained, Mulder. Here, let me help you up, and you can lean on me. Maybe Mr. Crawford has something we can put on it."

She gave Mulder her hand and pulled him to a standing position. He wrapped an arm around her shoulder and she supported him as they continued down the hill.

A little more than midway in their descent, the agents stopped when they heard a low growl.

"Oh no," Scully whispered. They both went rigid. There was no mistaking the guttural snarl of the bear. Slowly, she turned and looked over her shoulder, just in time to see the giant grizzly move from his standing position several yards away and start after them on all fours.

"Come on!" she yelled to Mulder, and they started forward, tripping as they tried to coordinate their steps.

"Leave me, Scully, and run!" Mulder cried, trying to push her ahead, but she ignored him and struggled to keep him upright. They reached another small embankment, and Scully propelled them off of it, their bodies rolling together for several yards before coming to a stop in some dense shrubbery. One of the bushes had thorns on it and scratched Scullys arms as she half-pulled and half pushed Mulder deeper into the undergrowth. They lay panting together, covered by the bushes and branches around them.

They could hear the growling of the bear coming closer. Scully's heart was beating wildly, and pressed against her face, she could both feel and hear Mulders thumping rapidly in his chest. They held their breath.

A roar like no other sounded very close to them, and Scully couldnt help but jump underneath her partner. They could smell the foul breath of the carnivorous animal just feet away from where they hid.

Mulder knew that the bear could smell them, but he suspected that the thorns on the bushes kept him at bay. Slowly, he reached back for his gun, and then, pointing it upward, shot it three times in quick succession. The bear let out a roar, and they heard it make a hasty retreat. It had been startled, and, for the time being, had left the area.

A couple of minutes of stillness went by before the agents felt safe enough to make their way out of the undergrowth. Panting with fear and fatigue, they looked at each other in amazement. It felt great to be alive after that terrifyingly close call.

They stumbled the rest of the way down the ridge without incident, and Scully supported Mulder to the cabin of Isaiah Crawford.


They knocked and waited, looking around. Nothing grew in the gnarled yard except for the beautiful roses next to the house. Their presence was incongruent to their surroundings. Mulder reached up and knocked again, and after several more moments of waiting, the door finally swung open.

"Oh, its you," Mr. Crawford stated. "What do you want? Are you done with your investigating?" He spit a stream of tobacco juice out the door, barely missing Mulders foot. He seemed to suddenly notice how the FBI agent was leaning on his partner.
"What did ya do to yer foot?" he asked him, gesturing with a gnarled finger, its nail embedded with dirt and grime.

"He fell on the way down. Do you have any ice we could put on it?" Scully looked dubiously into the house. She didnt think the old man had any modern conveniences.

"Come in," he told them reluctantly. He pointed to a beaten looking chair, and Scully helped Mulder to settle in it. Mr. Crawford continued to the corner of the room where he began getting bottles down and banging around in drawers. Scullys eyes roamed the cabin.

It was small, dirty, and smelled like a dozen pigs lived there rather than one old man. There was a plate and cup on the table that looked like they were washed every week or so, after all the food was hopelessly caked on. Mr. Crawford approached them with a cloth. "Tis a poultice," he told Mulder as he wrapped it around the sore ankle and foot. "Keep this on until you leave."

Scully wrinkled her nose. "What's in it?" she asked
.
"Just some herbs and such. Powerful healing herbs." The old man shook his finger at her. "He can take it off in a bit. Now, what's the visit for? "

Mulder breathed in, trying to ignore the odd smell of the poultice and the stench around him. "We were wondering if you'd seen any wild animals around here lately."

The old man cackled. "Tis the mountains yer in, boy! There's all kind of animals! "

"What about a huge Grizzly?" Scully asked him, her eyes serious and hard.

The old man stopped laughing. "Tis a man-eating Grizzly. You'd better beware of that un."

Mulder shifted in the uncomfortable chair. "What about a snake? A really big snake? "

The old man belched, and Scully stepped back, waving away the odor. "Oh, that must be the sea monster in the lake," he chuckled. Scully rolled her eyes, but Mulder looked intrigued.

"Sea monster?" he asked.

"Oh yeah, the giant serpenttis a legend in these parts." The old man rubbed his filthy hands together and then spit on the floor.

"Mulder, let's go, were wasting our time here."

The old man turned rheumy eyes on her. "I wouldn't be disbelievin' if I were you, young lady," he said sharply. Scully was tugging Mulder out of the chair.

"Wait, now. Let me take the poultice off, and he can walk hisself." The old man bent down and unwrapped it. Scully looked on, amazed that there was no longer any evidence of swelling. Mulder stood gingerly, at the old mans command, and when he put weight on his foot, he felt no pain.

"Scully! He healed it!" he gasped.

Scully made a face. "Obviously, it wasn't sprained after all," she said. "Thank you, Mr. Crawford. We'd better be going. It'll be dark soon."

The old man followed them out, glaring at Scullys back. "Oh yes, you'd better make it back before dark! All kinds of creatures come out in them woods after night comes."

The agents walked quickly away from the cabin.
"Thank God were out of there," Scully said. "I could barely breath!"
Mulder agreed. They quickly hiked up the ridge, ever ready to fire a shot at the grizzly if he should appear.
Scully heaved a sigh of relief when the houseboat came into sight. The bugs were humming in the trees and the full moon was rising over the lake. They walked briskly down to the dock, and Scully tried to ignore the stabbing pain in her ribs.

"Mind if I shower first?" she asked Mulder, heading for the bathroom.

"No problem," he answered, and she went and took the hottest shower she could, and then threw on a night shirt and crawled into bed, exhausted. She could hear Mulder in the bathroom as she drifted off to sleep.

It was dark. The moon cast an eerie glow over the water as she walked through the woods. All was quiet.

In a matter of seconds, it was as if all hell broke loose. There was the smell of the Grizzly all unwashed animal. There was the foul saliva dripping from its teeth as it towered over her, its great arms hanging like branches of a tree, the claws gleaming in the light of the moon. She could smell it's hot breath and feel the fur as it threw it's body onto her, crushing the air out of her.
Scully tried to breathe, but she couldn't, and the next thing she knew, it had scraped its massive claws across her stomach and its horrible fangs were descending upon her, ready to devour.

She awoke gasping. Sweat poured from her body, and the sheet she had been covered with had dropped to the floor. Eyes filled with terror, she looked over to where her partner stood stock-still, his hands still holding the towel over his head as if caught drying his hair with it. Shock and concern were etched all over his face.

"Scully, what is it? "

She tried to catch her breath, bringing trembling fingers to her face. A sob caught on her throat. "The dream, the bear!"

He crossed the room and sat beside her. "You've had time to sleep and dream about it?" he reached out and touched her hair gently. "Scully, you're trembling."

She jerked away from him. Yet another dream to make her look weak. She didn't want his sympathy. "I'm fine, Mulder, go to bed." She told him, falling back on her elbows. His eyes moved downward and widened suddenly.

"What?" she asked. "What is it?" her own eyes drifted down, and she gasped as she saw the slow spread of blood making its way across her nightshirt.

Even the normally unshakable Mulder had had enough. "We're leaving, Scully!" he announced firmly as he reached for something - anything! - to staunch the flow of blood. He yanked on a roll of paper towels, grabbing the absorbent material and wadding it against her wounds, his heart and mind racing in equal measures of panic and determination. She was slipping away from him. He could see her eyes losing their focus, and her head lolled to one side, her only defense against unconsciousness her own steely will. "No... " she argued, her voice slurring. "I'm
fine..."

"The HELL you are!" he snapped back, frustration slicing through his last ounce of restraint. "Come on, Scully, you're hurt. You're bleeding. You're anything but FINE!" He was calculating frantically. They'd leave the bags behind and he'd carry her to the car somehow. He kept watching,
his mouth forming a soft litany of undirected prayer.
Pleasepleasepleaseplease....

Some deity was apparently listening, because the scarlet rivulets had finally begun to subside. "Scully?" he asked anxiously, searching her pallid face. "Talk to me, Scully!" As gently and as unobtrusively as he could, he bunched up her tee shirt, expecting to see a protruding rib from
a break he'd missed earlier. What he saw instead sent a shiver through him and brought tears to his eyes.

The bruises still marred the flesh around her rib cage, though the fine pattern of the snakeskin had faded. It wasn't her rib that had broken the skin. Instead, there were four roughly parallel strokes that had sliced roughly through her, tearing the delicate pink tissues downward
from just below one breast and terminating on the opposite side, just above her navel. Mulder had been with her. He'd seen the animal strike at her, but he'd checked her after the first bear attack. And when the creature had pursued them a second time, they were together. The massive
carnivore hadn't touched her.

"What the hell is going on?" he whispered. His own hands were shaking by now. He could almost feel the agony of her battered ribs and the cruelty of the long gashes in her side. He smelled his own panic rising and knew
instinctively that if they didn't get away soon, it would be too late.

Was this what had happened to the Andersons? Were they driven away suddenly, or were they slowly killed by the nightmares brought to life in the light of day? Was this their ghosts screaming wordlessly to report their violent deaths? Or was the family merely away on an unplanned lark, leaving two FBI agents to uncover a wholly unrelated phenomenon?

Suddenly Mulder felt it again: the heavy presence, the evil that had settled over him in the car when they'd first approached this deadly paradise. He shouted, "Leave her alone!" to the intangible entity, his anger and fear mingling to give birth to a power of a sorts. "You can't
take her! You can't kill her! I won't let you hurt her again!"

The air around him trembled, but it was like the insouciant laughter of a bored socialite, catty and low, with graceful unsheathing of unseen claws. There was no remorse in the unnatural sigh, nor even real satisfaction from the detached spirit. There was merely the same restless malevolence that toyed with the FBI agent's psyche, the ultimate cat and mouse game.

Mulder was woefully overmatched and they both knew it.
Mulder didn't wait for the encore. He scooped up his injured partner, wrapping her loosely in a sheet, and he dashed to the door, kicking it open with his foot, dashing through with such inertia that he barely avoided dunking them both.

All of the blood drained from his own face when he realized that the little houseboat was adrift in the middle of the lake, the closest shore little more than a shadowy line on the horizon. He backed away, shaking his head. No, make that just shaking. He wondered if he was hallucinating, if this.... WHATEVER it was... was toying with their perceptions. Scully's soft moan, and the solid weight
of her in his arms, however, pointed to the reality of their predicament.

Unable to do more, he backed into the enclosed part of the boat, eased Scully back onto her bunk, and closed and locked the door.

He rubbed his ribs, which had acquired a deep ache of their own. Probably from his tumble down the hill, he reasoned to himself. Without any other visible remedy available, he reached for Scully's purse. He had never violated that small bit of her privacy before, but he knew she always carried some form of pain reliever, even if it was only aspirin, and he didn't want to disturb her any further.

Reluctantly, he opened the flap on the small leather bag, eyes going quickly to a small plastic bottle.
His fingers closed around the plastic, but simultaneously brushed against something else. It was something he couldn't identify, something he instinctively knew didn't belong in his partner's purse. And yet, when he fumbled to grasp the object, it eluded him, somehow there and not there, as though playing hide and seek with his determination.
During the strange pursuit, Mulder began to wonder if it was alive, though it felt on his skin more like a carved stone; cool, intricately detailed, without the intrinsic sense of life. His logical mind assigned it approximate dimensions. It seemed to be oval, a cabochon of a sorts,
perhaps an inch and a half long and half as wide. It was not, so far as he could determine, attached to any sort of chain or pin, so it was apparently not a piece of jewelry. The more or less flat back offered no tangible features, though it might have been painted.

He finally gave up the futile chase, making mental note to ask Scully about it when she was better equipped to discuss inanities. Now wasn't the time. Not even close.

He washed down two aspirin with a swig of bottled water, unwilling to ponder what would happen when their supplies ran out. That, he reminded himself, was the LEAST of their worries. He checked on his partner, who was sleeping soundly, her sweet features contorting occasionally within
her dream world. His hand on her cheek seemed to still her unease, though. He was immensely tempted to crawl up next to her, hugging her against himself. Whether he admitted it aloud or not, he was terrified, too, and would have done almost anything for the reassurance of her warmth
against him. At least, he thought gratefully, he saw no signs of any new wounds opening a path across her flesh. Then again, he couldn't be sure, given the mess congealing in the fabric of her tee shirt.

He bit his lip, kneeling beside the slender sprite of a woman. "Scully," he murmured.

"Mmm?"

"I need to change your shirt and take care of those cuts."

"Mmm..." The subtle change in tone indicated acquiescence, and he gently eased the sticky night shirt over her head, tossing the dirty garment to the floor. He checked, relieved to find that the bleeding really had stopped, and he gently cleaned up as much as he could of the gore that was beginning to cake on her skin. He found a woefully inadequate first aid kit, claimed its entire supply of gauze, tape, and antibiotic ointment, and set to work. By the time he finished, he could himself barely breathe, and he clutched an arm against his bruised side. Fishing around in the contents of the houseboat, he found a longer tee shirt, one obviously designed to be women's sleepwear. He eased the dorm shirt over Scully's head and arms, carefully lifting her limp frame to pull the material down to further cover her. He gritted his teeth at the last action, finally scooting back to his bunk, panting at the agony that suddenly threatened to rip a scream from his lips. He pulled up his own shirt, morbidly curious as much as
anything else.

His ribs, too, had been bruised. His fingers splayed over the oddly shaped discolorations, and he realized that there was a familiarity to the pattern that was emerging before his eyes. The purplish splotches were a mirror image of those that wrapped around Scully's torso, sans the snakeskin design.

For a second time, he whispered, "What the hell is going on?"

Finally the aspirin began to take effect and Mulders pain turned into a dull throb. He drifted off to sleep to the gentle sway of the houseboat.

Sometime in the night, Scully awakened and stared into the darkness, fear crawling up her spine. She felt the presence of something evil and for a moment she was incapable of movement. Her lips parted to call to Mulder, but it came out as a whisper. She could hear him snoring softly on the cot across the room.

Her eyes adjusted somewhat to the darkness and Scully blinked, looking around at the familiar shadows of the room. She could see nothing out of the ordinary, but still felt the awful thing looming in the darkness. She moved her leg gingerly and dropped it over the edge of the cot, painfully pulling herself up to a sitting position. The downy hairs on the back of her neck were prickling and she resisted the urge to jump up and run. Instead, she slowly got to her feet and made the four steps over to Mulders cot, sliding beneath the covers with him, her body trembling from fear.

He groaned in his sleep, his warm back to her face. She snuggled close to it, smelling his familiar scent and feeling comforted. Every muscle in her body was tensed and ready to spring should something happen. It terrified her that her back was facing the room.

Her ears were straining to hear anything other than the bugs chirping outside and the waves lapping the boat. There was something there, if she could only tune everything else out. Moments ticked by as Scully concentrated. Mulder had stopped snoring, and his breathing was regular in the room. She recognized it as she did her own, but there was another sound of breathing nearby. This realization caused terror to swell to her throat, and she slowly slid her hand up Mulders back and around his waist, feeling him tense as he awakened.

"Scully?" he said quietly. She pressed her hand into his chest, trying to convey to him that it was she, and to hold still.

"Mulder," her voice trembled and she felt him shift a little.

"What is it, Scully? Tell me." His voice was filled with concern.

"Listen, Mulder," she said, and they lay still in the bed, spooned together and straining to hear.

"Do you hear that?" she asked him at last.

He nodded.

"Do you feel it?" she wanted to know. "The awful presence?"

Mulder whispered that he did. "Just lie still, Scully, until it goes away." He reached for her hand that was still curled around his waist and held it.

"What if it doesn't? Lets make a run for shore." Scully was nearing panic. The eerie force within the room seemed to pervade her very breathing space.

"Scully, we've been set out on the lake. We're out in the middle of nowhere," Mulder whispered, and she swallowed a cry. She curled her legs up around him.

"Mulder, I'm scared. I mean I'm really scared."

It was a momentous occasion, to be sure, when Scully admitted such a thing, but all Mulder could answer was, "Me, too," as the ominous thing hovered around them.

It seemed like ages before the presence backed up and finally left them. Scully let out a sigh of relief and slowly relaxed her muscles. She was trembling like a leaf. Mulder turned over in the cot and looked at her. She turned her face to him.

"What was that, Mulder?" she asked, her face wrinkled in anxiety.

Mulder shook his head. "I've been trying to figure it out, Scully. Tell me about the dream you had before."

Scully raised a shaky hand and pushed the hair out of her eyes. She could feel Mulders warm, bare leg positioned over hers. "It was about the bear. He was clawing me."

"Where?" Mulder asked.

"He swiped at my stomach."

Mulder settled his head back on the pillow and looked at the ceiling, digesting this bit of information. She had the claw marks from the bear, as if it had really happened.

"Try to sleep, Scully. We'll discuss this tomorrow."

"Mulder?"

"Hmm?" he murmured into the pillow.

"Is it okay if I stay here with you?" her voice was small in the darkness.

He chuckled a little. "I'm glad I don't have to ask you to." he said. "I don't want to be alone, either."

He burrowed back down under the sheet and light blanket and Scully silently reached down for his hand. The last thing she felt before she fell asleep was his gentle squeeze of reassurance.

Mulder was running for his life, his breath coming in labored gasps. He was stumbling over the uneven ground, his palm and fingers curved tightly around Scully's much smaller hand. He only nominally remembered the boat
drifting to shore, it's hull bumping against the muddy bottom; and their subsequent flight from the confinement of the tiny enclosure, their feet propelling them toward the sanctuary of their rented car.

On the outlook for bears and snakes, they hadn't slowed their pace until they spied a magnificent buck, the enormous deer silhouetted in the dappled half light of a thick oak grove. The majestic creature's calm pose reassured the FBI agents that the grizzly and the serpent weren't in the immediate vicinity. Mulder suggested that they take a moment to catch their collective breath, an emotion Scully gratefully seconded. He felt a stab of guilt at the relief that flickered in her eyes. Once more, he
wished he could carry her.

He'd tried, actually. He'd taken fewer than a dozen steps when his knees buckled, throwing them headlong into the relative cushioning of a low, thick bush. While Mulder didn't recognize the exact species, he thanked the gods that it wasn't poison ivy.

They found their footing just a few yards away from the deer, and he'd suggested they stop. His knees were still rubbery, and he spread his fingers, fanning them over the fire that lanced through his side. He bent over at the waist, gulping air. He knew that Scully had to be doing even worse, though of course she hadn't complained. It was as though her admission of fear the night before had used up some personally-imposed quota and she'd die before conceding to another display of her natural limitations.

His vision became hazy, and he swept a hand over his eyes. "Ready to go,Jimmy?" he heard himself ask.

*Jimmy? Who the hell is Jimmy?*

She grinned up at him, drawling, "Joey, anybody ever tell you what a pain in the ass little brothers can be?" She chuckled, scratching absently at her chin.

*Joey? Little brothers?* Just for a split second, the image of his diminutive partner dissolved, shifting spectrums, and her delicate features became those of a young black man. *Jimmy.*

Some part of Mulder recognized the apparition. The vision faded as quickly and as mysteriously as it had arrived, and it was again Scully's porcelain face gazing back at him.

He didn't have a chance to analyze her expression. He felt the presence descend on them again, and he turned just in time to see the buck lower its head and charge.

Mulder had grabbed his partner's arm and yanked her up, pushing her relentlessly, panicked to see the furious creature gaining on them. The enraged male deer was designed for life in the great outdoors, but Mulder and Scully were not. The two FBI agents continued running toward Crawford's cabin, but the faster their feet carried them, the further removed the shanty seemed to be. With the buck's breath already warm against his neck, Mulder flung his female companion behind a tree, the only protection available against the marauding wildlife. The creature was merely driven to a more escalated fury, and its twelve point rack landed a cruel barrage against Mulder's body before the man could aim his gun. Finally, Mulder managed to land a shot, but he was too battered to move again when the animal turned his murderous tendencies on Scully.

Scully unloaded the remainder of her clip into the beast, her last slug finally achieving her goal. The buck was dead, unmoving. Mulder's legs and arms refused his commands. He moved his tongue over the gashes where his mouth had been gashed by the relatively blunt points of the animal's antlers. His hand fumbled until it found Scully's and he squeezed her fingers, reassuring her that they had made it once again. Only Scully's hand didn't respond in kind. In fact, it didn't respond at all. He dragged himself around to her, and in that instant, the bottom fell out of his world. Her eyes were open and vacant, the essence of the woman departed, leaving behind only the bloodied rag doll who propped against the dark, rough bark of the old oak. Mulder's hand went to her throat while his heart jumped to his, but he knew the answer before he felt for the pulse that wasn't there. The hide-and-seek of leafy shadows couldn't hide the blue tinge that was already beginning to paint her stilled face. His face crumbled and his fingers went to her lips, lips that died without fulfilling the promise he had so carefully hidden. Only now, when it was too late, did he acknowledge it to himself. He had cherished the fantasy of kissing her, of REALLY kissing her. He had wanted to be more than her professional, platonic, spooky partner. A sob escaped him, tearing its way up from a depth he didn't know existed within him. It rose from the same corner of his psyche that held Samantha's memory, only this... "Scully," he cried softly, then gathered her into his arms, weeping against the soft tendrils of her russet mane, his heart breaking beyond repair.

Her flesh was still malleable, and he finally was jerked back to the reality of things when he blinked and the daylight had become darkness. The soft motion and the textures on his skin... He realized that he'd been dreaming, and Scully still slept beside him. It had been so real, so... He turned over so that he faced her. He was suddenly willing to risk any reprimand, even a physical assault, just to remind himself that she was still here with him and still alive. He reached out and took her hand, bringing her fingers against his cheek, the closest he'd dare to a real embrace. He smiled to himself, listening for the sounds of her breathing. It took him a moment to realize that he was surrounded by silence. She wasn't breathing.

Mulder bolted to action. Reaching for her neck, he was relieved to feel a pulse, so he immediately began rescue breathing. Blowing into Scullys mouth, he leaned down and felt the air escape a second later. He kept this up for what seemed an eternity until she finally began breathing on her own. Sinking back on his heels, he let out a sigh of relief and then fell back against the wall, exhausted both mentally and emotionally.

Scullys eyes blinked open and she moved her head and looked at Mulder. His chest was heaving and his face was covered in sweat. Weakly, she reached her hand over and touched his legs. Her eyes held concern. "Mulder?" She questioned weakly.

He looked at her, then covered his face with his hand.
Scully lay in the darkness, for a moment unable to comprehend what had taken place.

Then she remembered the dream.

"Mulder the buck."

Mulder had put his head down on his knee, trying to still the beating of his heart and to dampen the fear that had raged within him moments earlier. At Scullys words, his head jerked up.

"What, Scully?"

"Mulder, were we out in the woods? What happened? Did the buck hurt you? Did it hurt me?" She raised up a little and looked down at her night shirt. If she and Mulder had been out in the woods, why was she back in his cot with him? And why were they out there anyway? She turned perplexed eyes on her partner.

"You were dreaming again, Scully. Only this time, it was different."

"Different how?" she asked him.

"This time, I was dreaming with you."

"What do you mean you were dreaming with me, Mulder? Thats impossible!"

"Scully, I dreamed we were running in the woods. Running away from the houseboat and the entity we had felt earlier. I had your hands in mine, and we stopped to rest. There was a large buck not too far away from us, and he charged. You killed it, but when I turned to check on you, you were dead."

Scullys eyes had grown wide and she licked her lips nervously. "I had the same dream." she finally said with a gasp.

Mulder moved closer to her and took her hand. Her eyes turned to his.

"Theres more. During the dream, you turned into someone else. A young black man. You called me Jimmy, and your name was Joey."

"Anderson" Scully whispered, and Mulder nodded. He, too, remembered the names from the file. Jimmy and Joey were the oldest Anderson boys.

Scully moved away from him, climbing off of the cot and pacing the room. "It isnt possible, Mulder. Even if you had a dream about the Andersons prophetic or otherwise, we couldn't have dreamed it together."

Mulder let out an exasperated sigh and ran a hand through his tousled hair that was still shaking. "Scully, when I woke up, you weren't breathing."

She swung on him, her face astonished. "What?"

"You had died in the dream, and when I woke up, I leaned toward you and you were not breathing. I had to give you mouth-to-mouth for several minutes before you started again."

Scullys face was ashen. This was more than she could possibly take in, and more than she wanted to try to understand. Opening the door, she walked out onto the deck of the houseboat and looked up at the silvery moon hovering over the lake. Large shadows of mountains loomed in the distance. Scully shivered, although it was hot out and there was no breeze. Her skin felt cold to the touch, and she suddenly realized she was going to be sick. She moved quickly to the edge of the rail and emptied her stomach violently into the water. When she was finished, Mulder was beside her handing her a wet cloth. She took it from him and wiped her mouth, then pressed it to her head.

His hand came up on her back. "Are you all right, Scully?" he asked, his voice low and neutral.

She nodded her head. Her eyes were watering and she wiped them with the cloth. An owl hooted in the darkness and Scully sighed, looking out over the lake. Her ribs were throbbing and her stomach was sore. Her eyes moved down and she lifted her nightshirt, exposing the scabbed-over claw marks. A sob caught in her throat, and she turned her back to Mulder. What was happening to them?

A warm breeze wafted through the screened windows, ruffling their hair. The oppressive heat seemed to have lifted somewhat as the first blush of dawn colored the eastern skies, though it would almost certainly be a brief reprieve. The two FBI agents had been too shaken to go back to sleep after the terrifying nightmare and its lingering effects. They lay side by side in the semi darkness, exchanging only an occasional word to assure each other they were still awake and alive.

Their bodies had assumed fresh wounds from the phantom attack. For Mulder, gouges opened in his arms and legs, and a series of shallow puncture marks dotted a not-so-random design over his back. Like Scully, he developed claw marks from the unseen bear, a long set of tracks that formed deep scabs along one side of his neck and over his chest. Except for the bruised ribs, his injuries didn't duplicate Scully's; they were more like different aspects of the same attacks.

"Scully?" he asked, going still. "I just thought of something. With the snake and the bear, you met up with the animals first. I don't recall bumping into any deer on our way, and certainly none like was in our dream." *Our* dream, he mused. It was an odd thought. His mouth quirked up slightly and he hoped to god she couldn't see his goofy smile. He was decidedly glad that she couldn't share SOME of his dreams. She'd probably never speak to him again if she knew how his subconscious had been known to play with her persona.

The thought sent a shiver through him, only this time it wasn't from fear. He automatically moved away from her, knowing if he didn't, there was a good chance she'd figure out EXACTLY which line of thinking had taken his
attention. A medical degree meant she had a pretty good grasp of human physiology, and he didn't want to have to explain why his...

Damned if she didn't move in closer! She curled into the crook of his arm, her eyes going to his face. She
seemed completely ignorant of the effect she was having on him. How was that possible?

"No," she sighed.

He opened his mouth to speak, closed it, licking his lips, and re-ordered his response. "I, um, was trying to keep that to myself..."

"That's okay," she admitted reluctantly. "I was thinking along the same lines before you brought it up." He choked at her choice of words.

"You okay, Mulder?" she asked, sitting up suddenly, her face all concern.

She leaned over him. "I had already realized that we hadn't met up with any renegade bucks, so it's not like you surprised me." She laid a hand over his racing heart. "God, you're shaking!" He couldn't help it. He burst out laughing, unable to stop for long enough to consider the bewildered expression on her face.

She eyed him warily, her eyebrow raised, and he knew she probably thought he'd lost his mind. Trouble was, he didn't dare explain, or she'd probably FEED him to the bear.

Scully wasn't sure what to make of Mulder's sudden fit of laughter, and he refused to let her in on the joke. Not only that, but he was holding her at arms' length at a time when she was desperately in need of reassurance. Then she shook herself. She'd spent all this time establishing herself as an equal in their professional association, and here she was faulting him for keeping it as professional as was possible under the extreme circumstances? She mentally berated herself, scooting away and moving to the other bunk. What on earth had she been thinking?

Now that the sun was beginning to creep up, she was feeling utterly foolish for crawling into his bed. She'd taken his signals wrong before and had kept her head about her, but this time, he'd made himself perfectly clear. They were partners and best friends, and he wasn't going to cross the line into making their relationship something else. She slid away, head held high as she moved to the other bunk, grateful at least that her face was turned away from him so he couldn't see the flush that stole into her cheeks. The few steps seemed interminable, between the pervasive physical weakness and the grinding humiliation that undermined every movement.

Mulder, for his part, was cursing himself, thinking she'd put two and two together and was now furious at him for his indiscretion. Dammit, she'd crawled into his bed in the middle of the night! What the hell did she expect? He'd never pretended to be a monk. And he had a feeling a monk would have reacted just as he had. He hadn't done anything, hadn't acted on his body's impulses. He had nothing to apologize for! He turned away from her and hunched into a roughly fetal position under the covers. He couldn't let himself meet her eyes. He couldn't stand the thought of her disdain, no matter how displaced.

"I'm sorry, Mulder," she mumbled.

He went still, thinking he'd heard wrong. "For what?" he asked, confused.

"I'm sorry. It was just a stupid dream. I was out of line."

He swallowed. A dream. She attributed it to a dream. Maybe she wouldn't kill him after all.

Daylight brought a reprieve of a different kind. When the sun rose again, the malevolent spirit departed with the last gasps of darkness, and both agents slept, their dreams quite different in the shifting atmosphere. Scully could make out every detail of her partner's body, and she realized that she was completely nude. Mulder was gawking at her, his mouth twisted into a goofy, loving grin.

She glowered at him. "How could you!"
she spat.

"How could I what?" he teased, his dream-hand raising to stroke her cheek.

She willed herself not to respond in kind. It didn't work. "Stop it, Mulder! If we really ARE sharing this dream, then dream us in clothes!"

He chuckled, a low, throaty sound that sent a thrill through her. "What makes you think I'm the one who's dreaming us naked?"

"Believe me, Mulder," Scully warned, "you dont want me participating in this dream."

Mulder smiled devilishly. "Oh, but I do, Scully." he stepped closer to her, his breath falling enticingly on her bare shoulder.

Scully inwardly melted. She whispered, "Is this really happening?"

He reached out and tilted her chin upward, his lips connecting with hers a second after the wetness of his tongue did, and she leaned into him, their bare skin touching and igniting. Scully threw her arms around his neck and moved her head, opening her mouth and sweeping her tongue around his. Mulder made a low, male sound from deep within and Scully felt hard evidence of his ardor on her stomach. His hands were all over her and came to rest on her bottom, pulling her upward. Scully gasped into his mouth and he let go of her lips and devoured the softness of her neck.

Scully cried out in passion and the sound awoke her. She rolled over and fell of the cot, entangled in the sheets.
"Oof!" she gasped out, and Mulder, who was still asleep, found himself alone in the dream, fondling the air.

Scully scrambled up, casting a nervous glance at her sleeping partner and walked out onto the deck of the boat. It was morning now, and she looked out at the remnants of what must have been an awesome sunrise.

Running a hand through her hair, she recalled the dream and hoped to hell that Mulder hadnt really shared it with her. First, she didnt relish the thought of her partner knowing that she found him so unbelievably attractive. Second, she wasnt quite sure she could handle it if she knew that he wanted her that much. Third, she wasnt ready to enter into that kind of a relationship.

Was she?

She crossed to the other side of the boat, dragging the cooler out from underneath the seat. She opened it and took out an orange juice, twisting off the cap and taking a long drink. She pulled the peanut butter out of their bag and searched for one of the plastic knives they had brought. Not finding it, she shrugged and stuck her finger in the peanut butter, licking it off. It tasted wonderful and she leaned her head back and closed her eyes, savoring the moment. It had been a while since she had eaten, and she was starving. Delving her finger back into the jar, she pulled it out and felt a hand clamp around her wrist.

Startled, her blue eyes flew open and she found herself staring into Mulders hazel orbs. He was kneeling before her. Without breaking their gaze, he slowly pulled her hand toward him and lowered his mouth onto her finger, sucking the peanut butter off of it, his tongue swirling around the digit. Scullys mouth fell open.

As he ever so carefully pulled her finger out of his mouth, he closed his eyes for a moment and ran his tongue up it, making sure that he got the very last bit.
When he looked at her again, he said, "You don't mind sharing, do you?"

Scully started to say his name but had to clear her throat. "Mulder, what the hell are you doing?"

He smiled at her. "I think you know."

She swallowed, her eyes dropping down his firm chest that was covered with a sprinkling of dark, coarse, hair, to the waistband of his boxer shorts. Her mouth opened again of its own volition and Scully licked her lips. Mulder barely supressed a moan. Her eyes met his again and he moved almost imperceptibly toward her.

<Yes> Scully thought, uncaring whether it was what she should do. It was what she wanted to do, that was very plain to her right now. She licked her lips again and put a tentative hand out to touch him. The spell was broken when a loud screeching filled the air.

A wild, feral call that shot instant fear into hearts of the FBI agents. Whatever it was, it was loud and menacing, the sonic alert of incoming danger. The peanut butter - and the surprisingly sweet uncertainty of new beginnings - were summarily forgotten as the duo scrambled for safety.

They closed and locked the screen behind them, their backs pressed together in mutual shelter, pistols readied. The Siamese twin approach to self defense.

The harsh sound shook the air again, and slowly Mulder posed, "Was that - ? It sounded like - like - "

Scully nodded, the motion of her head causing an almost imperceptible ripple through the muscles of her back. He could see it in his mind when his body brought him the message, along with the intimate awareness of his partner's proximity.

"It sounded like a woman screaming," Scully said, completing his thought for him.

"We should try to help her," he offered, hoping his partner had some inkling of an idea of HOW they could help someone else when they themselves were stranded.

No such luck. "Mulder, I don't see how. We're too far from shore to swim, and we couldn't get the motor going on this boat yesterday - "

"WHAT?" He heard himself yell, his fear overwhelmed by blinding revelation. Oh god oh god oh god! "Scully, we didn't TRY the motor! God, Scully, WE NEVER TRIED THE MOTOR!"

"Yes we did, Mulder! It wouldn't start!"

He whirled, his hands flying to her shoulders, turning her to face him.
"Scully," he said deliberately, measuring each syllable, "We never tried the motor. If you remember it, it was a dream! We can get back to shore and get the hell away from this place!"

She hesitated. "A dream?" He saw her doubt flutter, then fall away, replaced by determination that mirrored his own. "A dream..." She expelled the breath she'd been holding. "Let's go home," she concluded firmly. "I'm getting sick and tired of ... whatever it is that's messing with our heads."

The outboard motor was housed at the back of the boat, and while the steering mechanism was inside, the motor itself - and the ignition capabilities - lay out on the narrow veranda that surrounded the 'house' part of the houseboat. Mulder knelt beside the engine, coaxing it from its reluctance, babying it along as he prayed for a miracle. Whatever Scully had dreamed, the power in the machine was not cooperating. It had gas; he checked that. It turned over a few times, giving him a few seconds of rough running once, but it seemed distinctly averse to any long-term work.

The day was already warm, the sunlight glittering over the millions of ripples that capped the serene lake. A light breeze sighed over the water, and a low growl reached his ears. For a moment the wooden planks trembled below his feet, and Mulder leaned back, a goofy, triumphant grin
on his face. He thought that the motor had finally started, purring to a smooth idle.

A warm breath tickled the back of his neck and his smile widened. "Scully!" he exclaimed, voice hushed with awed delight. He reached back for her. "You KNOW what I like!" he added in his best imitation of the Big Bopper.

Only his hand didn't connect with any part of his feminine partner. He turned, puzzled, wondering if she'd moved back; and again, the boat shimmied underfoot. There was no corresponding sound except heavy breathing, and something told him that it wasn't Scully. And, he realized, the engine wasn't running. Which meant that the deep, grumbling sound he heard earlier... and the breath on his neck... !

The smile was gone instantly. "Scully!" he shouted. "SCULLLLEEEEE!!!"

His feet skidded around the corner as he flung the screen door open. When he saw her alive and reasonably well, changed into her jeans and tee shirt, questioning eyes aimed at him, he was beyond speaking. He reached out and
yanked her against him, his heart threatening to pound a hole through BOTH their chests. He had been afraid that ... whatever they were up against, whatever the cruel entity WAS, it had stolen her away from him for good.

"Mulder, what is it?" she asked worriedly, reaching for his face. Her thumb stroked away a tear he didn't even realize had trickled down his cheek. "You're shaking!"

It was a full minute before he could organize his thoughts enough to speak. He leaned forward just enough to press his forehead against hers, still too distraught to offer much in the way of a coherent word. "I - While I was outside. There was someone there. Or someTHING there."

The scream sounded again, only this time it was an ear-shattering sound, and accompanied by another powerful quake of the boat.

"What the hell???" Scully whispered, eyes going round.
Another growl, deep, throaty, extended, and another quake, as the houseboat tilted to one side.

Their weapons were already in their hands when they saw the cat, its sleek fur as black as a starless midnight, its eyes glittering with hunger. The panther was huge, much larger than any indigenous creature in the Smokies
had a right to be. Its massive claws sliced through the flimsy aluminum screen like it was soft butter, and while the heavier grill behind wasn't so unyielding, it was no match for the feline's strength.

Scully fired without prompting, her bullet striking but not stopping the cat. Mulder's gun shot off three more rounds, including one that hit the beast between the eyes. The cat seemed invincible until the last slug, which flung it backward into the water.

For a moment, neither of the terrified humans spoke, and their guns remained trained on the open doorway. Finally Mulder took the few hesitant steps it took to slam the heavier door shut. They both knew it wouldn't stop the black monstrosity if it returned.

Scully's lip trembled in spite of herself. Her body ached head to toe,she hadn't slept well for the better part of two nights, and she was scared beyond anything she'd ever known. The relentless attacks were tearing down her physiological defenses in ways she couldn't even describe, and she knew that Mulder was little better off.

They turned in synchronized perfection at a familiar sound. Another boat, close by! Mulder shouted through one window, Scully through the other; finally they both moved to Mulder's side of their temporary quarters.

They watched as Isaiah Crawford's small fishing boat approached, the old man's impassive face turned toward them. A chill ran up Scully's spine when Crawford turned away, apparently utterly disinterested, and he continued across the water, leaving her and Mulder to the tender mercies of the forest creatures.

Scully and Mulder scrambled out onto the deck and screamed at Isaiah Crawford to come back. The old man ignored them and motored on.

"That stupid, red-neck old coot!" Scully screamed, her nerves completely shot. Grabbing a handful of her red hair, she pulled at it and growled deep in her throat while pacing the deck. Mulder looked over the side, watchful for the big cat. All was still. He got up and ushered Scully back into the inner area of the houseboat and closed the door.

"Scully, we have got to get ourselves together. What we need is some rest. Neither one of us has slept very well lately, and I think you have taken the worst of it. Here, lie down." He guided her to the cot and pushed her down on it. Scully lay there, looking up at him. Her eyes felt as if they were full of sand. She wanted so much to sleep, but she was very afraid.

"Mulder, I'm scared to go to sleep." she grasped his hand, her eyes imploring. Mulder felt his heart skip a beat. He squeezed her fingers.

"Scully, I promise I'll be right here. Chances are you're too tired to dream, anyway." She swallowed and closed her eyes, almost immediately drifting off into a restful sleep.

She was sitting under a tree, its long graceful branches curving and dipping close to the ground. Mulders dark head was in her lap. She ran her fingers through his hair, enjoying its softness and thick texture. Mulder grinned up at her and she felt real contentment.

Reaching over to a wooden bowl beside her, she plucked a grape off of its stem and brought it to his mouth. He took it between his lips and burst it with his teeth before sliding it the rest of the way in with his tongue and chewing it up.

"Mmmm" he said. "So sweet."

Scully smiled and fed him another one. She then took the entire cluster and dangled it over his head and let him bob up for each grape and tear it from its branch. Watching the soft meat of the fruit disappear into his mouth made Scully ache deep inside to touch her lips to his and to wind her tongue into his warmth and seek that sleek muscle to mate with her own. She scooted out from under him, replacing her lap with his bunched up jacket, and hung her face over his. Mulder swallowed the grape that was in his mouth and gazed at her for a long while, watching as the soft breeze rustled through her hair. Then slowly, she eased off of her hand and onto her elbow, her face inches from his. She could feel his warm breath tickling her skin and smell the grapes on it. He didn't moved, only stared at her as if transfixed. She moved again, barely brushing her lips against his, her tongue straining to burst from her mouth and plunder the depths of his oral cavern. She kept herself in check, though, and barely brushed his lips again with her own, eliciting a moan from deep inside his chest.
Scully rested her hand over his heart and felt its beating speeding up and she parted her lips as they brushed his yet again. She felt him lean up and she moved back a bit, slightly out of his reach and moved her lips to his cheeks, planting the gentlest of kisses there and trailing up to his temple. His hands came up and encircled her waist, pulling her to him, and her eyes met his.

With a painful slowness, they moved their lips closer until they met, the soft friction sending a sharp tingle rushing through Scullys body. She gasped, and he caught it in his mouth, swallowing it within his ardent kiss, as their lips heated up and parted, her tongue finally allowed release as it met his which slid beneath and over and around hers, causing a spasm of pleasure to shoot through her core. She made a small sound and brought her hands to his face, cradling it lovingly, cherishing it with her fingers as they danced over his skin.

Their mouths parted a minuscule amount and he whispered "I love you'" on a heady sigh and she felt that she was melting into him. Her eyes shown as she bent and kissed him again, a tear falling and mingling with the taste of his mouth. She left its golden depths and trailed her lips over his face and to his ear, flicking her tongue over it before she dripped her message of love lightly into it.

He trembled and she felt his hands moving up her back. She arched into him and felt the evidence of his desire rubbing urgently against her.

"Oh Mulder, make love to me" she moaned.

"Yes", he said softly, and then louder, "yes!"

Scully awoke with a start, jolting in the cot and jerking Mulder out of the doze he had fallen into beside her. He sat on the floor where he had fallen, blinking confusedly. Scullys heart beat rapidly in her chest as she looked around her, and then her eyes met her partners and she turned a deep shade of crimson.

Quickly, she jumped off of the cot and went to the kitchenette, busying herself with making lunch. She kept her eyes focused on her task and refused to look at Mulder, although she was very aware when he got up off the floor and walked to the bathroom. Out of the corner of her eye she noticed that he was purposely walking so that his front remained away from her.

This had to stop. She wasn't sure at this point which of the dreams were worse the ones where their lives were in mortal danger, or the ones where she found herself letting down all of her carefully constructed walls concerning her partner and her strong feelings for him.

Biting her lip, she struggled to regain her composure and to act in a way befitting an FBI agent. She placed the sandwiches shed made on plates and then took hers outside, where she sat and watched large ominous clouds slide across the sky.

Silently, she picked at her sandwich and tried not to think of how her ribs were aching and how embarrassed she felt.
After a few moments, Mulder came out. "Thanks for the sandwich", he said, a bit sheepishly. Scully kept her eyes averted.

"You're welcome", she said. Mulder pulled a beer out of the cooler and offered her one. She nodded, and he knocked the cap off on the railing of the boat, then handed it to her.

"Thanks", she said, still not looking at him. Her voice and manner were cool, and Mulder could feel anger bubbling up inside at her demeanor.

"You know, Scully, it isnt really fair for you to be mad at me for what I dream. And don't forget that half of that dream was yours! I assume I was only controlling my own actions, and mostly I just laid there."

Scully felt a wave of mortification sweep over her. Why did he have to talk about it? And what did he mean by he mostly just laid there? She still recalled vividly the feel of his hands on her and his tongue in her mouth.

"I'm not angry with you, Mulder", she finally said, shuddering at the memory.

"Well, you could have fooled me." He leaned on the railing and looked off into the distance at the mountains that towered above them, their peaks swirling with mist.

"I'm not, Mulder. I'm angry with myself."

Mulder looked over at her, waiting for an explanation. Of course, there wasnt one forthcoming.

"Would you like to tell me why you are mad at yourself?" he eventually asked, his words sounding clipped.

"No, I would not." She got up and threw her napkin in the trash. There was absolutely no where she could go to escape. She looked longingly at the water, wishing that she could go for a swim, but the previous ordeal with the snake had made her afraid. Instead, she went to take a shower herself.

The stall was warm from Mulders use of it, and droplets of water covered the walls. She shed her clothes and stepped in, shutting the door behind her. Examining her stomach and ribs, she winced, and cold fear gripped her once again. They were going to have to get out of this place.
She stood under the water for a long while, feeling the heat of it relax her muscles little by little. At least the nap she had taken, dream or no dream, had refreshed her somewhat. She mentally cursed Mulder for having fallen asleep with her. She turned off the water and stepped out of the shower, grabbing a towel and running it over her.
"Damn", she said when she realized that she hadn't brought any clothes into the bathroom. Sighing, she wrapped the towel around her and tucked it in next to her arm. She opened the door and looked out. Mulder was lying on his cot, his chest rising and falling evenly.

Scully couldn't believe he could so easily go back to sleep after all that had happened. She walked into the room and stood over him a moment, watching his face. He had entered REM sleep and she could see his eyes moving back and forth beneath the lids. She wondered what he was dreaming.

Shrugging, she moved to her suitcase and opened it, fishing out her underwear and clothing. Turning back around, she caught the look of terror on Mulders face and stopped in her tracks. He was having one of the dreams!

Scully watched in horror as invisible claws bit into Mulder's face, and teeth marks appeared on his bare shoulder. He cried out but didn't wake. The battered man curled into a ball, protecting himself as well as he could, but the merciless attack continued unabated, virtually flaying the beautiful muscles of his back.

She reached for him, her hand capturing his face. "Mulder! Wake up!" He didn't respond to her prompting, and his cries - and the injuries that marred his flesh - grew more deep and more pronounced.

"Mulder!!" she repeated firmly, shaking him. "Mulder, wake up!" A chill ran through her. What if she couldn't wake him? She had stopped breathing. What if - ??
She shuddered, burying her face in her hands, unable to consider the possibility. "Come on, Mulder!" she moaned from behind her fingers. "Please wake up!" She was suddenly struck by the unlikely idea of reversing the spell, like Sleeping Beauty, with a kiss. She dismissed it instantly, shaking her head at her own unmitigated gall. Mulder's life was in danger, and she wanted to play fairy tales?

She saw him fading before her eyes, and he responded to nothing she could do, not awake.

... Not
... Awake?

She wasn't sure she heard the sigh, not at first. It was far more subtle than the breathing that had so unnerved her before. There was an unspoken murmur of approval in the sound-that-wasn't-a-sound, and some corner of her subconscious told her that there was no animosity in this new presence. Without really thinking about it, she reached for her purse, her slim fingers closing easily around the object that had eluded her earlier.

The stone was larger than she had guessed, at least two inches long by an inch and a half wide. The outer surface was opal, its pale, fiery colors delicately veined with gold. But where a relief design was cut deep into
the center of the stone, the glimmer turned deep ruby. The craftsmanship was exquisite, dual hearts woven together with long ribbons. The reverse of the sculpture was poured with gold, and a skilled engraver had written in flowing script that wound around the surface:

Dreams, the mind's most lush tapestries;
E'er stronger and more brightly coloured
When woven within shared souls.
A Dream Weaver's sword wields power
Against the blackest knight,
Yet cannot do alone
What joined hearts overcome.

Scully turned back to her partner, reaching out and clasping his hand, the Dream Weaver flush between their palms. Ignoring the fact that she was clad only in a towel, she stretched out beside him, her other hand resting
on his cheek. Within seconds she, too, was asleep.

Mulder was losing the fight, and in the process losing his life. He heard himself scream when the giant panther swiped dagger-like claws across his body, yet he was too tired and too weakened to even pretend to defend himself.

He could smell the monster's fetid odor, the rotting garbage smell that permeated every molecule of air around them. It was the same stench present when they had dreamed of the buck, come to think of it, and bore more than a passing resemblance to the smell inside Isaiah Crawford's
shanty. It was a familiar one to the faltering FBI agent; it was the scent of death come to claim its own.

It made no difference that his intellect told him it was a dream; these dreams WERE real, the wounds carried over to daylight, the nightmare to literally end all nightmares. Mulder no longer cared about the Andersons, or the X-Files, or the FBI. His only link to hope, his only reason for
trying to stay alive, was Scully. He couldn't let her face the invincible enemy alone, no matter what. But he was growing progressively closer to an all-enveloping darkness from which he knew he wouldn't return. He was being forced to concede to his own humanity, handed to him in terms he was incapable of refusing.

He wasn't expecting Scully, and for a moment he permitted himself to sob. She had been his hope, and now she, too, was helplessly, hopelessly trapped. He let his eyes flutter closed, welcoming the bitter darkness that began closing around him. He was too tired...

To his surprise, though, her hand was clasping his, and she raised him to his feet. And he was able to STAND on his feet, though he was distinctly wobbly there. She moved to stand directly in front of him, her back flush against him. She drew his arms around her and clasped both his hands
around the base of a sword.

A sword? Where the hell did THAT come from?

"Just go with the flow, Mulder," she ordered, pointing the ruby steel blade at the panther.

Mulder's jaw dropped when the animal actually cringed at the sight of the weapon. Scully advanced on the gigantic cat, and the cat backed away, clearly intimidated. Mulder's gun hadn't fazed it, but this sword...

His eyes fell to the instrument of their salvation. It was literally all scarlet, its blade etched with designs that, upon closer inspection, were names. Dozens of names, maybe hundreds. But five names, Mulder recognized instantly. They were the five members of the missing Anderson family.

Scully was relishing the power that eminated from the weapon. She guided her partner's arms, brandishing the long, sleek blade, a smile forming when she saw the fear that leapt into their enemy's black eyes.

The inky panther swiped a gigantic paw at them, but Scully deflected the blow easily, slicing a deep gash in the creature's limb. The resultant howl shook the ground beneath them, but the creature began to back away, wary of the bite of the metallic claw.

Scully, emboldened by their success, pressed forward, menacing the growling beast, guiding and supporting her partner as they moved. The cat's tail swished angrily, its teeth bared, and it finally dissipated in an echoing scream that shook the ground beneath them.

With the disappearance of the feline, the sword shrunk in on itself, reverting to the same oval stone carving that Scully had discovered inside her purse, its deep crimson center pulsing with light. She wrapped her hand around the amulet, then adjusted her towel, blushing as it occurred to her that she still wasn't dressed in EITHER reality.

Mulder's body in the dream world had taken serious punishment, and his encounter finally took its toll. He slumped to the ground, blood pouring from wounds that would prove fatal if in fact they followed him into real life.
All of a sudden modesty became a minor issue to Dana Scully. She knelt next to her partner, running a hand through his hair, murmuring words of reassurance she wished she could believe, staring with the dismayingly practiced eyes of a doctor. He was dying, she knew it, and there was nothing she could do to prevent it. She swallowed a sob that threatened to overwhelm her, because he needed her to be calm. Her fingers gently brushed over the side of his face, and she willed the split flesh to heal. Her eyes went wide and so did Mulder's when the sides of the gash closed together, mending into a flawless, unscarred whole.

She stared at the fresh, clear expanse of skin. It was impossible! Then she shook her head, ruefully aware that ALL of this situation was impossible. Why should she let that stand in the way now? She raised her palm, realizing that the Dream Weaver had begun to hum, and once again she smelled the heady attar of roses. Her hand was guided by the object, and with each pass, the bruises and cuts disappearing with her touch. She continued working over him, her touch light and sure, and his skin closed up beneath her fingers, until finally he was whole.

Wide awake, Mulder watched his partner's hands float over his skin, agape as he watched his torn flesh close up beneath her touch.

"Scully" his voice was hoarse.

"Shh," she said, leaning over him on the bed. "Rest. Dont sleep, just rest." She stood up and grasped the towel just as it began to fall. With a last look at her partner, she went to the bathroom and got dressed.

She made them something to eat, and sat with Mulder on the bed as they discussed what had happened. Mulder looked haggard and tired, but he no longer bore the scars from the attack.

"Scully," he said, sitting up a little straighter. "Let me have that amulet. You still have wounds that need to be taken care of."

Scully retrieved it from her purse, and, with only a moment of hesitation, took her shirt off. Mulder leaned closer and held the smooth stone to her skin, running it over the bruises and long jagged scars from the bear. Like magic, they disappeared. When he was finished, he sat staring at the stone as Scully pulled her shirt back over her head.

Dreams, the mind's most lush tapestries;
E'er stronger and more brightly coloured
When woven within shared souls.
A Dream Weaver's sword wields power
Against the blackest knight,
Yet cannot do alone
What joined hearts overcome.

He read the inscription and then looked into Scullys eyes. She felt the tears coming and turned her head. She looked out the small window at the ribbons of orange and red that striped the evening sky and felt Mulder shift on the bed. He took her hand in his, placing it over his heart, and Scully turned to him, her lips parting. She blinked, and the tears fell.

"Yet cannot do alone what joined hearts overcome," he repeated, his voice strong with belief.

Scullys next breath caught in her throat as he leaned forward and placed a chaste kiss on the tip of her nose. Her eyes had fluttered shut, and they opened again to stare into Mulders. She felt their connection more strongly at this moment than ever before, like tendrils of a vine entwining their hearts til they clasped into one. As two metals when heated and liquified are poured together and made solid, she felt their destined souls take that final plunge and lock together for all eternity.

His heartbeat was steady beneath her hand and she realized how much she depended on this man for her very peace of mind. When had their partnership become so vital to her? She couldnt remember anymore when it hadnt been this way between them.

As she sat staring at him, marveling at the closeness she felt and the total lack of discomfort, the eerie, dark presence manifested in the room around them.

Scully and Mulder seemed to sense it at the same time. They stiffened and moved slightly closer together. The sun had now settled behind the mountains in the distance, and the room had grown dark.

Scully licked her lips. "I-Im going to turn on the light." She moved toward the table, and all at once the cord of the lamp was yanked from the socket and the whole thing flew from where it had been sitting and slammed into the wall opposite, shards of glass careening everywhere. The two agents automatically covered their faces on the bed and then peered over their arms at the darkened room.

All was silent save the ominous breathing that was growing louder and louder every moment. Scully was about to ask Mulder if he thought they could make a run for it out of the room. She thought she might at least feel safer outside of these closed quarters, but as the words were forming on her lips, her foot was jerked out from beneath her and yanked forward so that she was pulled halfway off the bed.

Mulder quickly grabbed her arm, but the force was too strong, and she was unceremoniously dumped onto the floor and flipped over on her stomach. Scully felt invisible hands sliding up the legs of her jeans and into her pockets, as if searching. She looked over her shoulder with an open mouth as the strange examination took place. Mulder had jumped off the bed when she hit the floor and now placed his hands under her arms. He began tugging, but the force was crushing her to the floor. Scully felt the movements continuing from her pants up her shirt front. Mulder was pulling her to him, trying to yank her from the grasp of the entity, and in a rush, the hands left her and the weight was lifted, and she went sailing forcefully into her partner. They fell in a heap together on the cot, a tangle of arms and legs. Scully was still looking into the center of the room where things were now shifting around abruptly, but she clung to Mulder in fear. His heart was beating fast and his breathing had accelerated, telling Scully that she was not the only one who was terrified at what was going on.

They watched as Scullys purse flew off the dresser and the contents were dumped onto the floor.

"Scully, the amulet" Mulder said softly and Scully jumped from the cot and ran over and grabbed it.

"Scully!" Mulder yelled, on his feet again and coming to her aid. With a tremendous force, she was slammed against the wall, but she wouldnt let go of the stone held in her palm.

She rolled over and made to run but the thing grabbed her again and threw her onto the other cot. Scully felt a heavy weight settle quickly on her chest and something began slamming her arm onto the hard steel rim of the bed over and over. She cried out and Mulder was there trying to get a grip on whatever had her, but there was nothing solid to hold onto.

Mulder reached for her hand and said, "Give it to me, Scully!" and she let loose the stone and he took it, running to the door of the boat. "If you want it, come and get it!" he yelled into the room, and then opened the door and ran onto the deck.

Scully felt the weight removed from her, and she breathed deeply. She knew she had to get up and help Mulder, but her arm throbbed painfully. She pulled it to her chest and winced, raising herself to a sitting position.

In the silent room she could still feel the evil.

"Mulder, its still in here!" she yelled. Mulders face appeared at the door. He held up the stone.

"This is what you want! Leave her alone!" He yelled at the top of his lungs. Scully held very still, waiting for the assault that she knew would come.

With a jarring suddenness, she was lifted in the air and propelled past Mulder and out the door. Her body landed against the railing pushing her breath out of her body with a whoosh. With another burst of energy, her legs were thrown over the high railing, and she found herself hanging in the air by her hands, the water some 15 feet below.

"Scully!" Mulder yelled, trying to get to her, but he was shoved aside. One by one, Scullys fingers were pried from where they clung to the steel, her feet trying unsuccessfully to get a hold on the side of the boat.

"Mulder!" she yelled, and he was immediately up and throwing himself toward whatever it was that had Scully. He was shoved aside again, this time so hard that he slid across the deck and hit his head on the sharp corner of a box seat. Darkness descended upon him although he fought it desperately, and the last thing he heard before succumbing was a scream and a faraway splash.

Scully's felt herself being pulled under the water, her limbs fighting the unseen enemy. She was able to break free for just long enough to reach the surface and gulp in air, then was dragged down again. Her mind was frantic; she'd seen Mulder's unkind landing and knew he would be helpless against their attacker. They were being separated in the most violent way possible.

Yet even in her desperation, she realized that the entity was fighting out of fear. Whatever it was, the diabolical force was at least equally terrified of her and Mulder, and of the enigmatic Dream Weaver. She scissored her legs against the monster, her heart and mind reaching out tentatively to embrace her fallen partner. She didn't weigh the logic of her thoughts, she merely reacted.
She envisioned her hand in her partner's, the stone charm clasped between them, its intricate carving pressed into her flesh until it became a part of her. And though it was impossible, she could sense the same metamorphosis take place within Mulder. She had yielded her physical battle, and could feel her consciousness slipping away with every passing second.

The release, rather than frightening her, afforded her a calm she never expected. She knew she was almost certainly dead or dying: she had now been under the water for several minutes. She was actually removed from her body now, freed of its restraints and the minor aches and pain shed with the skin that had wrapped her mortality. She gave the sinking physicality only a moment's glance before she was propelled upward, freed of the chains that held her before.

She sought him out, as she had done for countless lifetimes, and all the separations that had come before. She reached out to touch the silk of his short brown hair, to stroke encouragement back into his pallid cheeks; but her fingers were no longer corporeal, and her efforts slipped right through his flesh. Downcast, she reached for his hand, her soul contacting the Dream Weaver.


Mulder's eyes fluttered open and he moaned. He stood slowly, and turned, and her unearthly eyes realized that they were no longer on the houseboat. They were back in the woods, together. The dream world was deceptively real; she could hear the crickets and smell the rich, damp soil underfoot, could see every vein in the leafy cathedral where they stood. A breeze lifted the errant strand of auburn hair and blew it into her face, and she just as easily puffed out a breath that blew it back. Scully briefly wondered if she were dreaming or dead, but put the thought out of her mind. She reached out, and this time her fingers connected with her partner's warm hand.

The Dream Weaver instantly sprang to life between them, becoming the same formidable sword that she'd seen before. Scully nodded calmly to Mulder, her determination flowing through the contact, her peaceful acknowledgment replacing the grief that she felt in him. He, too, knew that her body was almost certainly gone and beyond retrieval.

They turned without waiting to see the enemy, knowing it was already there and already stalking them. Only this time, Scully acted on an instinct she didn't know she possessed. She stepped into Mulder.

Now only one pair of hands controlled the sword, one conjoined will, one unstoppable, undivisible force. The creature standing before them no longer resembled any animal on earth; it was massive, its skin and muscles writhing from within, flesh roiling and fetid, putrefying more each passing moment.

And even when it lunged forward to attack, Scully could taste the bitterness of its fear.

Mulder didn't have time to react before Scully's dream self merged with his. He knew instinctively that it meant he had lost her, that she was dead, and yet... How could he miss the heart and the soul now entwined with his? She was embracing him in a sense he could barely fathom, and her faith in him, in herself, in the dream weaver guided them unerringly in the fight against their otherworldly opponent.

The creature allowed him no reprieve, its violence reaching out in an attempt to steal the sword, but the devil was deflected by it instead. Mulder and Scully had been a formidable team in reality; they were the more so here in the dream world, where their souls were welded together seamlessly. The Mulder/Scully duality ducked and rolled, evading the colossus, their dream muscles nimble and coordinated. The perverted misrepresentation of life and its awful stench began a deadly dance with them, striking, then retreating, the combatants' feet crushing the grass into a flattened mat of vegetation.

When the monster was in attack mode, its odor was overpowering; when Dream Weaver reclaimed ground, the air was thick with the scent of roses. With flawless accuracy, they blocked every strike the beast launched at them, and with each strike of the Dream Weaver, the horrific fiend screamed. The fiery blade sliced through the rotting flesh, exposing its gangrenous interior to the unnaturally early twilight that descended on them.

But as the darkness surrounded them the sword itself lit up, a self-guided beacon against the seething demon that refused to retreat. With each swing of the Dream Weaver, a thousand voices cried out for vengeance, demanding an accounting for centuries of innocent blood. The weapon's glow grew and spread, until it surrounded Mulder/Scully, and the sword whittled away at the behemoth until finally it fell back with an earth-shattering roar. The joined FBI agents advanced, the elegant weapon upraised to strike the final blow, only the horrific travesty melted into oblivion before they could drop the blade.

Mulder's dream body stood alone in the midst of preternatural darkness as the Dream Weaver again became stone. And with its compaction, he felt his partner's presence likewise slipping away from him. "Scully!" he cried out, anguished. "Don't leave me!"

Her answer was little more than a sigh on the wind. "Find me, Mulder. I'm waiting for you."

Mulder groaned, moving slowly to offset the fog in his brain. "Scully!" he cried, only half certain if he was dreaming or awake. He pushed himself up, shading his eyes with his hand, when he realized that he couldn't see his partner anywhere. "SCULLY!" he shrieked, panic rising in his throat. He dimly recalled her involuntary swim, and he jumped in, ignoring the intellectual side of him that told him it was too late. He was beyond rationality, beyond caring about any risk to himself.

He dove into the murky waters, his lungs bursting before he came up for air. He returned again and again, hardly aware that he still held the Dream Weaver in his hand. He finally touched something familiar, though he was unable to see, and his fingers groped wildly for the fabric he knew meant blue jeans. He found her slender wrist and managed to get his arm wrapped around her waist; then he fought his way back to the surface just in time to defeat the unconsciousness that threatened to claim him.

With his last ounce of strength, he managed to get her lifeless body aboard, her slim frame draped over his shoulder in a fireman's carry, and both of them flopped onto the narrow lower veranda. He needed to perform CPR, needed to push air into her lungs, but his own lungs were on the verge of failure and he was incapable of holding off the black tidal wave any longer. He managed to drop a hand over her stilled heart, the dream weaver nestled between their skin, just before he slipped away into oblivion.
And one heartbreaking, inescapable thought followed him into the void.

He had failed.


A quarter of a mile away, the carcass of an unearthly beast began to writhe from within, its decaying flesh splitting with the sound of a ripe melon's parting. A hand extended from the center of its soft belly, and the true monster inside emerged once more, spilling out onto the thick mat of grass and decaying leaves.

The long, thin arms plucked at the gooey strands of flesh that still clung to it, fingers stretching, legs extending to human proportions. A hairless head bloomed up from a broad nub between unformed shoulders, and the approximation of a homo sapien finally pushed itself up, moving slowly to wash in the muddy lake waters, removing the last trace of its slimy birth.

Dark eyes slowly lightened to aqua, and the unlined face fell into familiar patterns. His spine gradually fell into the slightly stooped posture of an old man, By the time he stepped out of the water, Isaiah Crawford showed no sign that he had ever been a part of the foul, cadaverous creature whose carcass was already disappearing into the loamy earth. He spat in the general direction of the houseboat, his face contorted with hatred.

"Ain't nothing but fertilizer," the naked, wrinkled old man sniffed. "Ain't none of you worth nothing but that."


Mulder was walking. He felt as though he'd been walking for days on end. A fog drifted up about his feet and was rising until the air all around him was the consistency of thick soup. That this was a dream, he felt certain, but unlike before, he had no inclination to dispel the bind it had on him, for he knew what horror awaited him in reality. She was here. He could feel her presence, and because of that, this was where he wanted to be.

"Scully!" he called, and was answered by the low moan of a foghorn. He could hear water lapping nearby, and wondered if he would be forever attached to the loathsome element now that it had taken his life and heart from him.

"Mulder!" he heard her call to him, and his heart sped up.

"Scully!" he yelled again into the dank air.

"I'm here!" she called, her voice somewhere to the left of
him.

She was alive! She was alive here in the dream world, and he stumbled as he moved forward in the ever-increasing fog. He reached his arms out, feeling for anything solid to latch on to, but came up with empty air again and again.

Then, all at once, like a phantom materializing from thin air, she stepped out of the vapor and into his arms.
He breathed in the scent of her hair, his hands clasping her back, in rapture of her solidity. Tears welled up in his eyes as she clutched at him, her lips pressed to his neck.

"Mulder," her voice was shaky. "I thought I'd lost you", she moaned mournfully into his shoulder.

He held her to him, unwilling to let her go even long enough to look into her face. He rubbed his cheek against her head, mislaid in the blessed feel of the tactile for a moment.

"I lost you", his voice came out choked in a sob. The sound tore at her heart. She ran her fingers through his hair and then gently pushed at him with her hands until he loosened his grip enough for her to look into his eyes.

"It wasn't your fault, Mulder." Her eyes pleaded with him to believe her.

"I couldn't save you, Scully."

"That's right, you couldn't." Her hand came up to his face and ran down the stubbled skin until her fingers reached his mouth and gently felt the soft flesh of his lips. "It's all right, Mulder. I knew that you couldn't."

Somehow, in this dream-state, her inhibitions were gone. She no longer remembered the superfluous reasons that held her back from the man she loved like no other. She stood on tiptoe and pressed her trembling lips to his, tasting the salt of his tears on her tongue. He gently returned her kiss and then breathed out on a sob.

"I never want to go back, Scully, not if you aren't there with me." Scully was silent, not knowing how to reply. She pulled his lips to hers again and kissed him tenderly, wanting him to know the unending depth of her feelings.

Heads pressed together, she whispered into his mouth, "You'll never know, Mulder, how very much you mean to me."

His hands kneaded her flesh in anguish, sensing his impending loss. "I do know, Scully, if it is even a tenth of what I feel for you."

She kissed him again, deeper this time, willing her very heart to pass into his body through the union of their lips and tongues. After a moment of pure bliss, she began to disappear, and he cried out to her, clasping desperately at the air around him, the merciless fog swirling up and eating her as her final words reverberated through him.

"I love you, Mulder. Remember me."

As the fog lifted from his brain, Mulder fought the return of reality. He knew that Scully was gone, and he no longer wanted to live himself. She had been there for him for so many years, turning him from a near-laughingstock to a human being again. Shed given him the courage to continue, and all in the face of her own doubts. Now they were intertwined and he knew she could not die without him dying with her. He stubbornly relished the darkness and pushed away the light. In the end, though, the tenacity of his very essence won out, helped along by some unseen force that seemed determined to help him along.

A warmth in his palm was the first sensation he knew after the emptiness subsided. Turning his head, he managed to force his eyes open and look toward his hand, lying face down on Scullys unmoving chest.

He next felt the coarse wood beneath his cheek, and the cramp in his leg that was turned under him. Pulling himself a little, he managed to move a few inches across the deck and then rise up on one elbow, staring down at Scullys lifeless face, and then at his hand. Slowly, he turned it over and gazed at the stone, almost hot in his palm. It glowed a fiery red.

Mulder turned it back over and pressed it to Scullys heart, a small spark of hope igniting within him.
A vibration began, extending all the way up his arm, and as it strengthened, he felt his own vigor returning. He rose to a sitting position, his hand still covering Scullys chest. He reached out with his free hand and clasped her fingers, lying inert on the deck. Her skin was cold and clammy to his touch. His eyes moved to the place where the stone sat hotly between their skin. He instinctively knew that without his own hand there, its healing powers would not activate.

It had been obvious that the entity had wanted the stone. It may even come back to get it, Mulder thought anxiously as he bent over his partner and watched for signs of life. The first inkling that he had that she was coming back, was a staggered throb at the pulse in her neck. Then her hand in his warmed up just a bit and a small, shuddering breath was born in her body.

"Scully?" his voice was soft, and she coughed weakly, her eyes fluttering a bit until finally opening and staring upward, as if unseeing. The stone in his palm was so hot now that he could barely stand to touch it.

She blinked and turned her head, her eyes focusing on him. Mulder let out a long sigh of relief. He felt the stone cooling, and he took it off of her.

"Are you all right?" he asked her, and she wet her lips, trying to form a word. She settled on a brief nod.
"You rest", he said, and got up. "I am going to try the motor again. We have got to get out of here." He picked her up and took her into the houseboat, carefully removing her wet clothing and settling her under the blanket before making his way to the motor on the other side of the houseboat.

He spent the next thirty minutes tinkering with the stubborn machinery, and running across the deck to check on Scully. Slowly she was coming round, the color returning to her skin and her breathing evening out. She rolled and coughed up a bit of water, and Mulder brought her a cloth to wipe her face.

He let out a cry of triumph when he heard the first sputter of the motor and then when it caught, he rushed to Scully and told her they would soon be to shore. She smiled at him, and his face broke into a grin in response. Perhaps this nightmare was finally ending.

As the night slowly dissolved into day, the shore finally came into view and Mulder sighed with relief , wiping the sweat from his brow. He maneuvered the boat to the dock and shut the motor off. He had been trying unsuccessfully for the last 15 minutes to get his cell phone working, but to no avail. He walked into the houseboat and smiled to see Scully up and dressed. She turned to regard him, and her eyes briefly gave away her tumultuous emotions before a mask of assurance fell over her features.

"Are you sure you are feeling strong enough, Scully?" he asked her, grabbing their bags and tossing them onto the deck.

"I'm fine, Mulder", she said, and the much-used phrase worked to comfort him. She helped him get the rest of their stuff and transport it to the dock. As they disembarked the boat, they both felt a surge of relief.

"We're not out of the woods yet, Mulder", Scully said, turning to look at her partner.

"Well, obviously, Scully," Mulder teased, gesturing to the wide expanse of trees with his hand.

"Very funny", she said, but smiled a little. There was so much she wanted to say to him, but knew that it had to wait. They were very much in danger, and still out in the middle of nowhere. What had happened when they had been in that last dream state stood between them like a door to be opened and a world to be explored. Scully stubbornly pushed aside the idea that she had been dead during their encounter, although Mulder had said something to that effect when he had tucked her into bed earlier.

"Scully, somehow I think that Isaiah Crawford knows what is going on around here," Mulder told her. "I think we need to pay him another visit."

"Why do you think that?" she asked. She knew the amulet was special, but didn't see that it implicated the old man. She had tucked the stone into her pocket after reviving from the drowning, and she felt its presence like a guardian. However, something wanted it, and would more than likely return for it. So far, the entity that had attacked had only come upon them at night, and she hoped it would stick to that habit, thereby giving them this whole day to escape. She looked out on the lake where the new morning sun was casting its sparkling rays.

As if reading her thoughts, Mulder said, "The animals seem to have no trouble manifesting in the daytime." Scully looked at him strangely, and he continued, "They couldn't be real, Scully. I mean, a grizzly in these parts?"

"Its not unheard of, Mulder."

"The buck? The panther? The snakes? I mean, what would cause so many animals to attack us unwarranted?"

Scully sighed. "Are you suggesting that the entity that attacked us is possessing the animals?"

"Maybe." Mulder said.

"And the old man? What do you think he has to do with it?"

"You remember how he healed my ankle?"

"Oh, Mulder! It was swollen and he brought the swelling down. That hardly constitutes a healing. He's just a grouchy old man who doesnt want us around. That in itself makes me suspicious of him regarding the Andersons. Its very possible that he killed them." Scully stood with her hands on her hips, regarding Mulder and waiting for his next outburst of ridiculous speculation. Why must he always ignore the obvious?

"We have absolutely no proof of that Scully," he said. "It's more likely that the animals killed them. Remember the dream where we were the oldest Anderson boys? Maybe we dreamed what happened to them. The buck charged and killed them."

Scully's brow shot up. "Then what?"

Mulder shrugged. "I don't know, it ate them?"

"And where's your evidence of that, Mulder?"

Mulder's mouth set in a hard line. "Something very strange is going on here, Scully, and the only thing difficult to understand is how you can stand here insisting that it is only normal woodland activity."

"Look, I admit that whatever attacked us on the boat and threw me overboard was something well, supernatural. But the animals were animals, albeit vicious ones, and Isaiah Crawford is an old man. He obviously doesn't want us here. We know that from the way he ignored us out on the lake."

"And what was he doing out there, Scully? Don't you think it a bit odd that he was around just before we had those two dreams and then the entity manifested itself?"

Scully made an exasperated face, "No! No more than I would think it was weird if I saw anyone before it manifested. It is called coincidence, Mulder."

"Fine, Scully." Mulder was getting angry, and he knew that wouldnt help matters. Let's just go see the old man and take our stuff to the car. He grabbed their bags and Scully determinedly wrenched hers out of his hand and carried it herself.

A few yards down the hill, Scully was regretting her haste in claiming her bag. Dream or real or some combination in between, her body had been through hell and back, and now it was assessing it's fee in rubbery knees and shaking hands. She'd extended the handle to let her carry-on roll over the uneven ground, but her grip was increasingly tenuous, and she was beginning to wonder if she'd be able to walk as far as their rental vehicle.

Mulder continued onward, showing no outward signs of strain, and she muttered murderously under her breath, "Just keep moving, Mulder. Just keep those long beautiful legs chugging along and never mind little old me."

He whirled at the sound, his eyes wide and jaw slack. "W-What did you say?"

Flustered at being overheard, and hoping he'd not been able to make out the actual words, she stammered, "I- I said keep moving. We've got to keep moving." *Sure that's what you said*, she mocked herself just before she flopped onto the grass. "But not until after I've taken a break," she conceded through gritted teeth.

He nodded warily. She'd already decided that their dreams may well have been shared, but she'd seen only the version colored by her own private fantasies. Whatever personal exchanges had transpired between them in the hellish netherworld, they apparently hadn't translated over to Mulder's memories. Nonetheless, she couldn't pretend indefinitely that she was all right. Her heart was threatening to ricochet from her chest and her breath came in gasps. Even lying on the grass, she was trembling violently. As much as she hated to admit it, she was going to have to make this trip in incremental hikes.

Mulder dropped to one knee, an arm going under her shoulders. "I'm sorry, Scully. You nearly drowned, for God's sake. You should be in a hospital, not traipsing through the middle of nowhere." The remorse and the worry in his voice cut through her resentment.

"Dammit, Mulder, how am I supposed to maintain a nice, healthy hate when you say something like that?" She let her gaze trail up to meet his own, finding the lopsided smile that wiped out her last traces of anger. She saw the relief flood into his expression. She'd known better, this time, than to throw out a noncommittal *I'm fine*. He sat next to her, arm still circling her shoulders. "Hey, I could use with a break, myself," he admitted.

She cocked an eyebrow at him. "Yeah? You don't look to me like you're tired at all."

The sky rumbled with distant thunder and the breeze picked up. Mulder glanced up, calculating aloud, "We shouldn't wait too long, though. And for what it's worth, I'm not tired." He clarified gently, "I'm just saying, give me a break. I don't know how you saw things, but I got the hell scared out of me out on that boat. My gut instinct tells me that Isaiah Crawford isn't just a gardener. He's connected somehow. Scully, we've been together, what seven, eight years? I'm not God, I'm not perfect, but this is what I DO."

She corrected firmly, "It's what WE do, Mulder. But you have a point. Whether or not I can see it in this particular instance, your hunches tend to coincide pretty much with the truth, a lot more than I give you credit for." She drew a deep breath, pushing herself to her feet. "Let's go find Isaiah Crawford."

At the mention of the old man's name, the Dream Weaver began pulsing against her hip. Her hand went to her pocket, withdrawing the stone. She stared for only a moment, then replaced it. "Ready to go, partner?" she asked, extending a hand to Mulder.

He rose gracefully, his hand taking hers only after he stood. And he didn't let go.

They stopped twice before reaching the car. Mulder actually leaned over and kissed the fiberglass hood, ignoring the grime splashed on it by the rains. He loaded their bags into the trunk while cheerfully infuriating Scully by insisting loudly that she remain seated inside. Unlike his partner, he didn't question for a second the validity of their shared dreams, but he figured it would take her a while to step through the ruins of her own emotional wall, the one she'd watched tumble down in a different reality.
He'd waited for all these years, it wasn't going to kill him to wait a little longer. But damned if he wasn't going to be happy at the prospect.

She was adamant that they would go together to Crawford. Privately, Mulder agreed. If Crawford was indeed behind the attacks, it wouldn't be safe for Scully to stay alone anywhere. If she became comfortable enough to sleep...
He reached for her hand again, grasping it firmly despite the question in her expression. They crossed the tall grasses and strode up the path between the roses.
Both of them stopped, a shared sense of connection rising within them. Scully held out her hand, and the Dream Weaver had changed again, its opalescent outer skin peeling back, its ruby center literally folding outward to become a glowing rose in full bloom. The thick, spicy scent of the roses surrounded them, becoming a tangible thing. And the voices...

A league of voices whispered around them, as ethereal and absolute as the wind. They were crying out for justice, for vengeance, for peace. It was as though the garden itself was begging for some sort of absolution. The flowers nodded in the whirlwind that sprang up around them, the crimson blossoms beating against leafy breasts.

Mulder knelt on the sandy path, clinging to Scully with one hand while the fingers of his other scraped at the surrounding soil. He didn't dig very deep before exposing the pale, old ivory of bones. Human bones, from the looks of them. The whirlwind picked up speed, as did the cant of the victims, whose murmuring had become a loud, discordant chorus that echoed through the mountaintops. And the roses nodded their approval on the power of the wind chanting, "He killed us! Stop him! He's evil!"

Scully tried to pull her hand free to reach for her gun, but Mulder stubbornly refused to relinquish his hold on her. "Keep the Dream Weaver," he ordered tersely, "And I'll have my gun out. I think we know now what happened to the Anderson's."

She swallowed, nodding, her voice uneven. "He called us fertilizer. He's buried the bodies here, beneath the rose garden."

Mulder wondered how she knew that, when she'd heard it. He also wondered if she realized she'd stepped closer to him.

She raised a troubled gaze to him. "I... I remember it, but I don't remember it happening. I just heard the words in my mind." He raised the hand holding the gun and knocked on the door, announcing, "Mr. Crawford, we need to talk to you!"

There was no answer. Scully hardly expected Crawford to welcome them with open arms, but the skeletal remains in the garden certainly gave them probable cause.
"Mr. Crawford!" she called, "We're Federal Agents and we're armed!" Her fingers clenched more tightly around the Dream Weaver. Logical or not, she found it more comforting than a gun in this locale. Their surroundings convinced her that they were still dreaming, possibly still on the boat.
The breeze became a gale that plucked at her hair and clothing, and threatened to drown her voice. Mulder still clung to her, but when the doorknob refused to yield, a sturdy kick of his foot convinced the portal to open. The duo stepped inside the twilight of the dingy room, and they gagged. If the stench had been noticeable before, it was now unbearable. Scully shuddered when a huge, unidentifiable bug scampered across her toe; when it threatened to climb her leg, she shook it away. It landed with a sort of 'scritch' on a piece of yellowed newspaper just before disappearing into the rest of the rubbish.
Trash littered the floor of the ramshackle cabin, and it seemed that the window couldn't quite illuminate any spot in the shadows. The old man was nowhere to be seen, but given that they couldn't clearly see anything, he could have been anywhere.

Scully actually stumbled back when the presence descended this time. Its previous manifestations were nothing in comparison. It gnawed at her body and soul, sucking out her breath and beating against her with darkly invisible wings that bruised her very core. She was incapable of speech, yet miraculously she clung to Mulder and to the Dream Weaver. She fought wildly until she finally managed to change hands, pressing the stone between her palm and her partner's.

In that instant, the presence coalesced into a single pillar of dark flame, then further compacted into the not-quite-human Isaiah Crawford. Crawford's eyes no longer carried any hint of blue about them. They were black and scarlet flames that flickered and burned in their sockets, his mouth a chasm of filth and decay that spewed out inky smoke. He was the devil personified, maybe even Beelzebub himself, the incarnation of all that was hideous and vile. He raised a clawlike hand and extended black talons from the ends of his skinny fingers. His rotted lips twisted into a desecration of a smile.

"You think you can come to my woods and destroy my animals? You think you can frighten me with your little charm?"

Scully heard a voice, as hard and as assured as the Almighty's. "You and your spawn don't stand a chance, you bastard." She hardly recognized it as her own.

Mulder's chin rose as he squeezed her hand. "Let's rock."

The thing that was Isaiah Crawford began to laugh, a hideous cackle that shook his beastly frame. "You think you can defeat me with that stone?" he croaked out.

Mulder squeezed Scullys hand, the stone nestled between them. He was beginning to wonder if something was wrong. He looked at Scully, and she, too, seemed puzzled. Her mind raced back to the last time the stone had helped them slay the bear attacking Mulder.

"It was a dream!" she said aloud. "We were in a dream when the stone helped us!"

Isaiah cackled some more, his voice oscillating between his own and an otherworldly growl. "You can't defeat me when you're awake!" he roared, and the ferocious evil pushed Scully until her back was against the wall of the cabin.

Mulder pulled her arm up and he held their joined hands in front of them. "Maybe not, but you're not going to be able to kill us while were holding it, that much I'm sure of!

Isaiah growled low in his throat, his fiery eyes rolling in his head. All at once, he transformed into a swarm of bats that swooped down upon the agents. Mulder and Scully covered their heads with their arms, and Mulder shot his gun at the flying mammals, sending them scattering only to join up again in a dark, vicious cloud. They kept diving and slapping them with their wings, making terrifying hissing noises. Scully cried out, realizing that one had bitten her on the arm.

"They're vampire bats, Mulder!" she shouted, and he pulled her toward the door, still firing his gun into the tangle.
Running, they made their way to the vehicle they'd left parked at the far side of Crawfords property. Mulder was glad he had left the doors unlocked, as he jerked one open and flung Scully inside, then dove in after her, slamming it shut again. They sat horrified, watching the creatures swoop and knock their heads into the glass windows of the car.

Mulder's eyes moved to Scully's arm, which was bleeding steadily. He pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket and wiped it, revealing the two little fang marks.

"I think you'll be in for some rabies shots, Scully." he said quietly, barely registering above the sound of the bats pummeling the car.

She looked at him. "We cant go yet, Mulder. We have to take Crawford in!"

Mulders mouth set in a hard line as he shook his head. "I think this old man has been out here for hundreds of years, Scully. I don't think we can bring him in. However, we may be able to kill him with the help of this stone."

Mulder eyed his partner with some concern. Although the outward effects of the attacks had been erased by the stone, he knew by his own experience that he was emotionally and physically exhausted. This bite that she had suffered was also a danger. Pulling his lip between his teeth, he made a decision.

Climbing into the front seat, he said, "Scully, we need to leave this place and be checked out by a doctor. We can always come back." He settled his long legs beneath the steering column.

Scully wanted to argue, but the physician in her won out. "All right, Mulder. I agree."

Mulder looked at her quickly in the rearview mirror. "Are you delirious, Scully?" he feigned concern as he put the key in the ignition.

"Ha, ha, Mulder." She leaned her head back on the seat. "I just happen to agree with you, for once." She smiled and he smiled back, although her eyes were still closed.

After several attempts at getting the car started, Mulder began to let forth a string of obscenities. Scully had opened her eyes and was leaning up in the seat.

"I think the old shit has tampered with the car!" Mulder finally blurted out, leaning back and slamming his hand onto the seat beside him. The bats had finally retreated and all had been silent for several minutes. Scully could feel her arm throbbing where the one had bitten her. More than anything, she wanted to get out of there. Her head was starting to hurt and the few moments she'd had to think of a hot bath and supper had worked to bring her close to tears now at the prospect of hiking back up that hill and facing more of Crawfords nature. Mulder turned and looked at her, sensing her dismay although she did well hiding it.

"I don't know, Scully. We could sleep here in the car, but we'll have to get out eventually. We certainly don't have to go make camp where we were before, although our tents might help us out a bit, even if they are torn." His eyes went to the cabin of Isaiah Crawford and rested there. He seems to have given up for the moment.

Scully sat taller in the back seat and straightened her shoulders. "Let's go back, Mulder. We'll make camp in the woods and go to sleep with the stone. Perhaps a final dream will make our decisions for us."

Mulder blinked at her, once again surprised at her willingness to face the unknown. He knew Scully was having trouble processing what was happening, but it hadn't stopped her from rising admirably to every danger and using the resources available to her, no matter how supernatural and unscientific they happened to be. Feeling great affection for this woman who was his partner, he brought his hand over the seat and stroked her cheek briefly. "Let's do it, then." he said softly, and they got out of the car.

Slowly they hiked back up the ridge, eyes constantly on the watch for danger. They needed both of their hands to help pull them up the steepest parts, so they had to tuck their weapons into the waists of their pants. Scully had pushed the dreamweaver stone deep into the pocket of her jeans.
The sun was low in the sky, and the bugs had begun their incessant humming. For a long while, that was the only sound in the air other than their feet trampling the brush underneath them.

Scullys arm throbbed with every movement. When she and Mulder stopped for a moment to rest, she took a quick look under the handkerchief hed tied around it. The bite looked swollen and red. Her eyes met his. "It's fine." she lied, and they started on their trek again. Scully could tell that Mulder was exhausted. He was in fine physical condition, but he was having more trouble than normal propelling himself up the steep ridge. She kept casting worried glances his way when he wasnt looking.

In the dense cover above them, the sounds of squirrels making their odd sounds could be heard. Scully looked up and noticed three or four jumping from tree to tree. She walked on, her thoughts on the moment they'd finally get to sit down, until she noticed the sounds becoming louder. Stopping, she used her hand to block the setting sun and gazed upward. A large mass of the small animals was filling up the branches overhead.

"Mulder.."

Mulder followed her gaze.

"Holy shit!" He barely had time to cover his head before they descended upon them.

In a great wave, the army of squirrels scrambled down the tree trunks and rushed the pair, knocking them off their feet. Scully covered her face as dozens of tiny paws ran over her. She could hear Mulders cries of consternation nearby. She kept waiting for one of them to take a bite out of her, but she only felt scratches as their claws scampered over her skin. She could feel several running up under her shirt and around her collar. One got tangled in her hair. She tried to roll away, but they followed, making their strange little sounds. She grabbed at them with her hands, flinging them this way and that, but there were always more to take their place.

"Scully!" Mulder yelled to her, and she tried to answer, but the creatures were on her face, too, and she was pulling them off and spitting when one of them stuck a paw or a tail into her mouth.

After what seemed like hours, the squirrels left them, and the agents lay panting in the brush, their clothes and hair in complete disarray. Mulder turned his head and looked at Scully.

"What the fuck was that?" he asked, still breathing hard. "Did they hurt you?"

Scully shook her head, leaning up on her elbows to survey her body. "Oh no.." she said.

"What?" Mulder sat up and looked at her.

"Mulder, they've bitten completely through my pocket. The dreamweaver stone is gone."
















*Author's note: Despite reports to the contrary, wild cats can and do swim. While in radio news I reported a story where a mountain lion swam out and tried to enter a fishing boat. One of the passengers was able to shoot and kill the attacking animal. The lion left its normal habitat because of a devastating drought.