Abe settled back into his seat, his heavy leather jacket creaking. It was cold up in the chopper. Though his amphibious body could endure great variations of temperature in the water, he preferred to be warm.
Hellboy wore his long coat and the heavy belt he always used on missions. The belt had a dozen or so pouches filled with various things he might need, from occult artifacts to silver bullets.
Anastasia put up the hood on her parka.
Out the window, they could see people coming out of their dwellings--they were too nice for him to think of them as huts or shacks--and staring up at the helicopter.
"Redfield, bring her down to the north!" he called. "Between the village and those caves."
The pilot raised two fingers in a kind of salute and guided the helicopter around and set it down. Brown grass bent with the air pressure from the chopper's approach; then the rotors began to slow, and go quiet.
"Keep her primed," Hellboy said. "You know SOP."
Redfield pulled off his headphones, smiling through his bristly beard. "Course I do. I just don't know why we didn't bring the whole team."
Hellboy frowned. This was what he got when Professor Bruttenholm was leading the investigation instead of him--Redfield questioning the plan. The guy was the ultimate professional and one hell of a pilot. Hellboy knew he was just cautious. But the only person giving orders on this op was Professor Bruttenholm.
"We don't know what's going on at the lake, or if the people at the dig are still in danger. We don't know a damn thing, yet. Someone's gotta look out for Anastasia's crew and do a new search of the dig area for the missing girl. Everyone's got their job, pal."
Hellboy didn't have to add any emphasis to his last statement. Redfield got it. His job was to fly the chopper.
"SOP," the pilot said, nodding.
Anastasia slid back the door with a rattle and clank, then she and Abe dropped to the ground. Hellboy climbed out after them, Tenzin behind him, rifle slung over his shoulder, and the four of them started toward the village.
"We're coming at this from the opposite side from my last visit. They weren't too thrilled before. They're not going to like this," Stasia said.
"All that concerns us is Kora Kyichu," Abe replied.
The morning sun shone on his blue-green flesh, making him glisten. Hellboy had seen him take a swim in the lake just after sunrise, which was good. Abe always seemed more focused after immersion.
"Agreed," Hellboy replied.
A group of villagers in wool and linen clothes emerged from among the dwellings, not far from the place where the narrow river entered Nakchu. They seemed to be waiting for something. Then a slender old man with white hair and a long white beard, tied a few inches below his chin, strode toward them.
"That him?" Hellboy asked.
"Yes," Stasia said.
"He moves well for an old man," Abe noted.
Hellboy had noticed the same thing. Despite his age, the man moved with assurance and strength. The others fell in behind him, as though his appearance had flicked some sort of switch to start them walking. Perhaps two dozen villagers--mostly men and mostly young, but not entirely either--crossed the space that separated them.
"Hunh," Anastasia grunted.
"What?" Hellboy glanced at her.
"No kids this time. They've left the children in the village."
Hellboy didn't like the sound of that. Maybe Redfield was right. They should've taken the investigation more slowly, started by searching the dig site and left only one guard on the excavation of the preparatory chamber. But it was too late to change the plan, now. And he knew his father had not wanted to waste another moment--not with the girl missing.
Tenzin had the rifle. Stasia had her pistol holstered at the small of her back. Hellboy carried his big hand cannon. Abe, though--Abe didn't screw around. Under his leather jacket he had an Uzi hanging from a strap. Meaney and Sarah had sneaked it in on the BPRD transport, along with several other things. They were going into an unknown situation. Best to be prepared.
As the villagers approached them, then surrounded them, Hellboy watched their eyes. Though they studied him and Abe closely and curiously, none of them looked frightened by the appearance of the newcomers.
"They've seen monsters before," he said softly.
"What?" Abe asked.
Hellboy shook his head. "Never mind."
The village elder came and stood right in front of Anastasia, glaring at her, barely acknowledging the others. He snapped something off in his own language, and Anastasia glanced at Tenzin.
"He wants to know what you want," the guide translated.
Hellboy took a step closer, narrowing his gaze as he studied the old man. "They call me Hellboy. You've met Dr. Bransfield. This is Abe Sapien." He thought about explaining that they were from the BPRD, but that would mean nothing to the old man. "What's your name?"
Tenzin rattled off the translation.
The old man stared up at Hellboy defiantly as he replied. "Jangbu."
Stasia nudged him. "My guy's here."
Hellboy looked around at the faces of the villagers. "The one you shot?"
"Tell him we're here to find the girl. We think they've got her, or someone in the village does. If we're wrong, we apologize in advance, but we're going to search the village now. Every structure."
Tenzin nodded, trouble in his eyes. Hellboy understood. Trouble was likely. But they had to find the girl and the shape-shifting saboteur, and he thought it was likely the two would be in the same place. Right here.
The guide translated.
A flash of anger crossed Jangbu's face. His spindly fingers tugged his beard. A number of other villagers began to protest, several of them coming forward.
Jangbu held up a hand and barked a command at them, then paused. With a slow, deliberate nod, he stepped to one side and bowed deeply. He spoke without rising.
"He says you are welcome to search if it means you will leave Nakchu alone after," Tenzin said.
Anastasia let out a breath of relief. She started forward, and Abe joined her.
"Wait," Hellboy said. He studied the faces of the villagers around him, wondering which was the saboteur Anastasia had shot.
Abe frowned, large eyes blinking. The ridges on his neck rose slightly, as they often did when he was alarmed. "What is it?"
Hellboy ignored him, staring at Jangbu, who rose to his full height again, regarding them all with a troubled expression.
"Sir?" Tenzin asked.
"If he's so willing to have us search the village, I'm gonna guess the girl isn't there." Hellboy glanced at Abe and Stasia. "So let's check the caves instead."
They started to back away. Jangbu barked a question, suspicion and anger on his face. Tenzin replied in rapid-fire gibberish, and Jangbu shouted something, pointing at Hellboy, then at the helicopter.
Anastasia moved over beside the guide. "What's he saying, Tenzin?"
"We're forbidden from entering the caves. No outsider is allowed there."
"Yeah," Hellboy muttered. "Just little girls they snatch to sacrifice to their fiery dragon god."
Abe unzipped his jacket to free the Uzi as they backed up farther. The villagers had surrounded them, and Hellboy wondered if they were going to charge.
They did. But not in the direction he'd figured.
Half a dozen of them ran, shouting, toward the helicopter. A couple of them had long sticks. Hellboy touched the grip of the big pistol that had been custom-made for him, about to draw it. He figured he could fire it into the air, scare them off, before any real shooting started.
"Hellboy!" Abe snapped.
Hellboy twisted around, even as he drew the pistol, to see the face of Jangbu changing, flesh changing texture, jaw protruding. His eyes began to burn, fire licking up from the edges.
"Him? This old guy was your guy?" he shouted to Anastasia.
"No. It wasn't him," she said, her voice curiously lifeless.
Which was when Hellboy noticed that it wasn't just Jangbu. They were all changing, skin turning to rough, scaly hide, fangs protruding, eyes on fire. Jangbu hissed and started toward them.
They were all shape-shifters. Or, at least, all subhuman. From the look of them, they were part human, and part dragon.
Abe squeezed the trigger on the Uzi. Bullets dug up earth just a few feet in front of the dragon-men. They paused. But the others, the ones who were changing even as they lunged at the helicopter, didn't slow down.
The chopper blades whirred, and Redfield took her up. The helicopter rose quickly, one of the Nakchu dragon-men hanging from the left skid. He let go and fell thirty feet to the ground, landing on his feet without any injury at all.
"Stupid git, where's he going?" Anastasia snapped, drawing her pistol and waving it around to help keep the villagers back.
"Standard operating procedure," Hellboy said. "We don't have another chopper. If there's trouble, orders are to dust off, get help."
Abe swung the barrel of the Uzi around. "Help isn't coming before we run out of bullets."
"Guess not," Hellboy replied, turning quickly, long coat whipping around his tail behind him. "So we do what we came here for. We find the girl."
"The caves?" Tenzin asked, a grim determination in his eyes. Hellboy decided he liked the guy.
"Yeah. The caves. Abe?"
Abe fired another few rounds into the dirt, scattering the dragon-men. Hellboy took one look at Jangbu--even as half dragon, the little white beard hung from his chin--and saluted as they started to run toward the caves.
The dragon-men opened their jaws and let out a horrid screech, some kind of battle cry, and started after them.
Tenzin paused, squeezed off a shot from his rifle, and one of the creatures fell dead. Hellboy hammered another to the ground with the punishing weight of his right hand, then they were running full steam toward the caves.
What they'd do once they found Kora, he didn't know.
Professor Bruttenholm left Dr. Conrad, Ellie Morris, and young Rafe Mattei in the preparatory chamber and emerged into the sunlight. He raised a hand to shield his eyes from the midmorning glare off the lake.
"Any luck, Professor?" asked Sarah Rhys-Howard, who stood on the edge of the excavated entrance with a very unpleasant-looking black submachine gun in her hands. A pistol jutted from its holster on her hip.
Timothy Meaney stood on the opposite side of the excavation, similarly armed. He didn't even look down. His eyes were busy scanning the lakeshore and the ridge of rocky hillside above them.
"Nothing that would indicate the presence of magic or provide a clue as to the identity or location of the saboteur," Bruttenholm replied.
Conrad and his team were still working on deciphering the pictograms and characters in the preparatory chamber. The professor might have been of some use to them, but his focus was elsewhere. If Hellboy and his team did not return with Kora Kyichu, they would have to start a more widespread search. Meanwhile, Bruttenholm was searching for any clue that might lead them to Kora or the saboteur.
"Has Neil not returned?"
"Not yet, professor," Sarah said.
Bruttenholm looked at her. The woman gave him an enigmatic smile. She was a field operative for the BPRD, which meant she had seen things both terrible and terrifying. He'd read her file, and in truth she had also done terrible things. That was why he had chosen her--and Tim Meaney and Neil Pinborough as well. They were total professionals, not afraid of the ugly, dirty work that sometimes came with the job, or of the ancient darkness the BPRD often faced.
This beautiful woman would not kill unless she had to, but in dire circumstances, she would not hesitate to pull the trigger. Bruttenholm hated to need such people, but it came with the territory.
"Walk with me, Sarah. Mr. Meaney, when Neil returns, ask him to report to me, please. I shall be preparing a report upon our activities thus far."
"Yes, sir," Meaney said, gaze still roving, watching. The man was a born sentinel.
Professor Bruttenholm started carefully across the rough terrain of the dig, where dozens of members of Dr. Bransfield's team were hard at work unearthing a variety of structures whose features were only slowly becoming visible. It was important work. Bruttenholm wondered if any of them truly understood, though, how dangerous it was. Oftentimes things were buried for a reason, ancient things put to sleep. Waking them could be fatal.
Sarah might have been tempted to offer him aid as they made their way down the rocky slope toward the lake, but she was better trained than that. She kept her hands on her weapon.
Every member of this operation had surveyed the ground that the saboteur had covered in his escape two nights past and come up with nothing useful. Nevertheless, Professor Bruttenholm studied the ground as they descended, leading Sarah toward the edge of the lake.
"Sir?" Sarah said.
Bruttenholm looked up to find that they were perhaps fifty yards from the water. Professor Kyichu stood on the shore in the very spot where Anastasia had shot the saboteur.
Dr. Bransfield, he mentally corrected himself. Don't think of her as Anastasia. Don't make it easier for her to hurt him.
He understood that those who loved were helpless against the power and confusion of that emotion. There was no malice in Dr. Bransfield. But that did not mean he could ignore what havoc her mere presence played with Hellboy's heart.
Professor Kyichu turned, hearing their approach. The sorrow in his eyes seared Bruttenholm, and thoughts of melancholy lovers left his mind. What did that compare with the grief of a father who has lost a daughter?
"Good morning, Professor," Kyichu said with a nod.
"Good morning, sir. But, please, call me Trevor. You're nowhere near my age, but still, let's leave the formalities for the youngsters."
Again, Kyichu nodded. "As you say, Trevor. And I am Han."
For a moment, they stood in silence. Sarah stood a few yards away, scanning the lake and the north ridge just as Meaney had. Then Bruttenholm broke the quiet.
"I know promises would sound hollow, my friend. But if it provides any comfort, I truly believe that Kora is still with us. And my team will not rest until--"