His words were drowned out by a sudden barrage of sound. The helicopter. Redfield had brought them back safely. A sense of relief swept through him, along with hope. Professor Bruttenholm turned--and as he did, he saw the look of unease upon the face of Sarah Rhys-Howard.
The chopper roared over the top of the north ridge, whipping up clouds of dust in the archaeological dig. Redfield was not a fool. Such a close approach would infuriate Dr. Bransfield's team, disturbing their work, perhaps damaging delicate artifacts. Protocol would have been to approach along the lakeshore, as they'd done last night.
But protocol was out the window.
Red emergency lights blinked urgently on the undercarriage of the chopper. They meant crisis. They meant disaster.
"Sarah," Professor Bruttenholm said calmly, "fetch Meaney and Neil, and rendezvous with me at the chopper with all speed."
The dragon-men were fast. One of them caught up to Tenzin when they were still eighty or ninety yards from the nearest cave entrance. Hellboy cursed as he heard the guide cry out in pain. Jangbu started shouting, but he couldn't figure out if the village elder wanted the other one to gut Tenzin or leave him alone. His hands--long, yellow talons, really--were gesturing wildly.
"Stasia! Abe! Get in there and find the girl!" he shouted as he skidded to a halt in the brittle grass and switched directions.
"Try not to kill them," Abe called back.
"Doing my best!"
Hellboy understood. Despite the Uzi, Abe tried his best to be a pacifist. Hellboy didn't mind beating the crap out of dragon-men if they were attacking him, but he'd also like to avoid killing any more of them if it could be avoided. Whatever was in their genetic makeup, these people had children, right in that village.
Tenzin slammed the butt of his rifle into the skull of the creature on top of him. The dragon-man rolled into the grass, and Tenzin was up. He was a smart guy. He didn't even think about trying to use his rifle. There were too many of them, at least fifteen, and more coming from the village.
Hellboy reached his side just as several of the dragon-men leaped for Tenzin. They fought side by side, the guide grunting with frustration, anger, and effort as he clubbed them with his rifle. Hellboy backhanded one of them with his stone fist, slapped another away with the gun in his left, and grabbed a third with his tail, slamming the creature to the ground hard enough to break bone.
Jangbu kept shouting. Lucky for the old one that he was slower than the others, but still he was coming.
Hellboy grabbed Tenzin's arm and pulled him toward the caves; then they were running again. "What's he saying?"
"Until now, he was telling them not to take our lives."
"Stop us entering the caves, no matter the cost."
Hellboy barreled onto the rough, rocky soil that marked the base of the mountain. The cave entrance lay just ahead. The dragon-men were swift. He was just glad they didn't have wings. That would have been very bad. It also made him wonder what they were, really. It was easy to think of them as dragon-men, given the local legends, but he had no proof of that.
Jangbu started shouting the same thing over and over.
"Stop them," Tenzin said quietly.
A strange feeling passed through Hellboy as they ran up to the mouth of the cave where Abe and Stasia had gone into the mountain. Something in the desperation of Jangbu's shouts did not seem savage to him, only sorrowful.
Then they were inside the cave. The morning light did not reach very far into the dark depths.
A snarl came from behind them. Hellboy spun. One of the dragon-men tackled him, and he fell, one sheared horn scraping the stone wall of the cave. The thing grabbed him by the head and started slamming his skull against the floor of the cave over and over. The pistol flew from Hellboy's grasp. Fire flickered in its eyes like a reptilian jack-o'-lantern.
Hellboy caught the motion of Tenzin raising his rifle from the corner of his eye.
"No!" he shouted. He bucked against the dragon-man and threw it off. The creature tried to lunge for him again, and Hellboy grabbed hold of it in midleap, redirected its momentum, and slammed it against the wall. The dragon-man's skull made a dull, unpleasant thunk against the rock, and when he slid down to the ground, he left a streak of blood behind.
"Crap," Hellboy muttered.
He had dropped his gun. Now he snatched it up and turned toward the cave entrance. Backlit by the morning sun, he saw several more of the villagers rushing in after them.
Hellboy pulled the trigger. A spray of rock chips erupted from the wall just inside the cave, but it gave the men of Nakchu village pause.
"Go," he snapped.
Tenzin ran. Hellboy followed, still aiming at the cave entrance, until they were around the corner and out of sight. The caves were riddled with small shafts that let light in at intervals, and they hurried through patches of light and darkness.
The tunnel became narrower, and lower. Hellboy bent and kept going. Tenzin was ahead of him, which was good. Hellboy was pretty durable. The guide somewhat less so.
"Stasia!" he shouted.
The whispering and clicking sounds of pursuit came up the tunnel behind them.
"Here!" came the call from ahead.
Hellboy followed Tenzin into a vast cavern. Far above their heads, small windows in the rock allowed light in. He spotted Stasia first, almost in the center of the room. She had her gun in her hand, but her features were twisted in anguish.
"What is it?" he asked. "The girl? Did you find her?"
With the look on Anastasia's face, he didn't know if he wanted an answer. But then she shook her head. Hellboy didn't understand. He glanced around, looking for Abe. He spotted his friend in a darker corner of the cavern. Abe emerged into a shaft of morning sun. He had the Uzi in both hands, but it was almost as though he'd forgotten he was holding it.
But then Tenzin started to whisper a prayer, and Hellboy looked past Abe, focusing on the walls of the cavern for the first time. Boxlike shelves had been hewn in the wall, and upon each of them lay a corpse in death's repose. Some of the remains looked almost human. Others were twice ordinary size and had skulls with jaws like a crocodile's. He spun around. Every wall was the same.
Then Hellboy saw the strange crenellated shapes in the floor where Stasia stood, and he knew that the pale things jutting from the ground were the bones of a true dragon.
"This is why they didn't want us to come in," Abe said.
Stasia gazed at Hellboy. "It's their crypt."
The sounds of pursuit grew suddenly much louder. All four of them turned at once, leveling their weapons at the same entrance Hellboy and Tenzin had used, though there were at least two other tunnels leading away from the burial chamber--probably to other crypts.
Two dragon-men burst into the chamber. Upon seeing the intruders, they stopped, threw back their heads, and howled in grief. Then, with a hiss, they started across the crypt, flames licking from their eyes.
A voice barked behind them.
The two dragon-men stopped and turned to stare at Jangbu, his white, knotted beard making him unmistakable.
Then another villager slipped past Jangbu and into the chamber. He raised his hands as though in surrender. Smoothly, his features changed again, and in the space of a few heartbeats, he appeared human again.
"What's this?" Abe asked.
"I don't know," Hellboy replied.
"It's him," Anastasia said. "The one I shot."
She and Tenzin moved toward one another, closing ranks. The guide spoke, addressing Jangbu, but the old man only shook his head sadly. It was the younger one who replied.
"What's he saying?" Hellboy asked.
Tenzin held up a hand, wanting him to be patient as he listened to the creature, the saboteur.
"He's the one who kept trashing the camp," Hellboy said. "He collapsed the excavation of the preparatory chamber."
The guide shot him a quieting look. Hellboy gestured for him to speed it up. Abe kept his Uzi leveled at the dragon-men.
At length, Tenzin nodded respectfully to the villager, then turned to Hellboy and the others.
"His name is Koh. Jangbu is his father. Yes, Koh is one of the men who have been sabotaging the dig. The villagers have been trying to prevent you from opening the preparatory chamber. They believe that now that it is opened, the Dragon King will rise to terrorize the plateau and mountains once more, unless a sacrifice is made."
"Oh my God," Anastasia breathed.
Hellboy still held his gun, but lowered the barrel. "Then they did take the girl? Is she alive?"
The question felt like poison on his tongue.
Tenzin turned to Koh and shot off the question. The answer came slowly, and when Hellboy saw the regret and humanity in Koh's eyes, he felt sick to his stomach, thinking the worst.
"The girl was taken by several of the men of Nakchu. They believed that since they were not the ones who disturbed the preparatory chamber, they should not have to sacrifice one of their own. They are the tribe of legend, who provided that sacrifice for centuries, once every year. Their ancestors bred with the dragons who served the Dragon King."
"It appears we were correct," Abe said.
"Yeah. Great," Hellboy replied.
"The girl is alive," Tenzin said.
Anastasia cocked her pistol and pointed it at Koh, obviously more than willing to shoot him again. "Where is she?"
Abe took a step nearer, staring into Koh's eyes as though trying to understand him on some level the others could not. "They only tried to stop us to keep us from defiling their burial chambers."
Tenzin spoke to Koh.
Jangbu shouted angrily, emotion seared into his dragon features. The fire that fell from his eyes seemed like flaming tears.
Hellboy wasn't buying it.
"What about the ones who tried to stop Redfield from taking off? He wasn't going to fly the chopper in here, so what's that about?" he demanded.
When Tenzin translated the question, Koh and Jangbu began to argue. Father and son shouted at one another. Hellboy holstered his gun, trying to understand their language. He thought if he could just listen a while longer, he might be able to get it. Languages made sense to him.
Anastasia took a step nearer to Koh, pistol still raised.
It was Abe who reached out and took her wrist, pushing the gun's barrel toward the ground. With a sigh, Stasia seemed to deflate, and she held the gun at her side.
"What are they arguing about?" Abe asked.
Tenzin looked stricken. In the pale daylight of that chamber, he appeared as though he might throw up.
"The village is torn. Some want the girl to be sacrificed. Some cannot condone it. Those who want to see Kora given to the Dragon King tried to stop the helicopter from taking off so that he could not warn them."
"Warn them of what?"
"That the girl's abductors are bringing her, even now, into the camp. They mean to prepare her for sacrifice. They will kill her today."
Hellboy felt rage ignite within him. He glared at Jangbu, then at Koh. But when he spoke, it was to his companions.
"You guys get what that means?"
Anastasia went to him, staring into his face. She'd see the fury there, he knew, and unlike so many other times, she would not be able to defuse it. Hellboy wasn't even sure she would want to.
"What are you talking about?" she asked.
Abe swore under his breath. "SOP. Redfield will bring back the rest of the team to try to retrieve us."
"No," Anastasia said. "Professor Bruttenholm wouldn't send all three of them. Surely he'd have someone guarding the preparatory chamber, for this purpose alone."
"Maybe," Hellboy said. "Or maybe he'd be more worried about us than something that right now is only a theory to him."
"We've got to get back," Abe said.
Hellboy unholstered his gun again. He lifted it and pointed it at Jangbu's head.
"Tenzin, tell them we're leaving. We're sorry about coming in here, into the crypt. But we're going back to the dig and stopping their buddies from murdering that little girl. Tell them there won't be any sacrifice. Not ever. The Dragon King's dead. And if they don't get out of the way, they'll join him."
As the guide translated, Abe and Anastasia raised their weapons again. Hellboy might have questioned Abe's willingness to shoot the dragon-men before, but if they tried to stop them from getting back to save that little girl, he'd pull the trigger.
So would Hellboy.
Jangbu clearly did not doubt it. And now that they'd already been inside the crypt, the villagers had little reason to fight them. At least two or three of their number were dead, but they'd been killed in self defense. Jangbu did not want any more of his people to die. Maybe he didn't want the little girl to be murdered, either; maybe he didn't want her blood on his hands. He and his people had set all of this in motion.
Now Jangbu stepped aside. He ordered the others to do the same. Some of them withdrew down the tunnel. Others came into the cavern and stood out of the way.
Hellboy started toward the tunnel through which they'd entered. Tenzin, Anastasia, and Abe followed warily.
Koh said something, reaching out for Hellboy, who glanced at Tenzin.
"He wants to come with us. He wants to help save the girl."
For a long moment, Hellboy glared at the dragon-man. Then he nodded.
"Come on, then. Maybe your idiot friends will listen to you."
No wind came off the lake. No dust rose from the digging of the team of archaeologists, and though they must have been speaking to one another, Professor Bruttenholm heard no voices. Other than the sifting noise of shovels striking dirt and the occasional chip of tools on stone, there was little sound at all on the plateau of Lake Tashi. The whole mountain range appeared to be holding its breath.
In his hand he held a bit of potsherd that had been given to him earlier in the day by Dorian Trent, one of the junior members of the British Museum archaeological team. Although in his midthirties, Trent lacked the dynamic ambition of people like Bransfield and Conrad, and as such held a position on the expedition that ranked only a little higher than the students who'd come along. In fact, as far as Bruttenholm could see, the thoughtful, intelligent Trent might well be here primarily to babysit the young men and women who were here to learn. But a single conversation had revealed Trent to be at least as knowledgeable as his more accomplished associates. Bruttenholm had been considering recruiting him for the BPRD's research division.