The fire burned higher from Koh's eyes as he stared at Hellboy a moment longer. Then he turned and snapped at the others. Reluctantly, the two dragon-men nodded.
All three of them shifted back, their flesh almost liquid, and in a moment they appeared to be human again. Koh stepped forward and said something.
"They give their word they will await any punishment in Nakchu and not make any further attempt to take the girl, or any other action, so long as you vow that you will keep the village safe from the Dragon King. But if you break your vow, theirs is also broken."
Hellboy stared at them each in turn, then nodded slowly.
"As long as we're clear that there isn't going to be any sacrifice. Not Kora or anyone else."
Tenzin translated. One of the villagers shook his head sadly and shot Hellboy a meaningful glance as he replied, and then they all stood aside.
"Take her out of here, Ellie," Hellboy said.
Kora slid from the altar, wide-eyed, and kept glancing around at them all. As she passed Hellboy, she gave him a shy smile, and he resisted the urge to smile back for fear he'd scare her again. Then she and Ellie Morris were gone.
"What'd he say to me?"
Tenzin shifted his gaze, like he didn't want to reply.
"What?" Hellboy prodded.
"He said you'd find out soon yourself. That when the Dragon King came, you'd feed the little girl to him yourself if it meant sending him back under the lake."
A chill went through Hellboy. His nostrils flared, but he said nothing as he turned his back on them.
"I'm gonna go out and nicely ask a bunch of frightened, pissed-off people not to shoot them full of holes when they walk out. You might want to tell them to go slow, with their hands in the air, then get their butts back to their village and stay there until someone shows up to put them in prison. And tell Koh no more midnight raids. The dig goes on. No more trouble from them, there'll be no more trouble from me."
"It's not you they're worried about," Tenzin replied.
Stooped in the corridor, Hellboy turned to glare at him. "Are you the translator or their mommy?"
He followed Ellie and the little girl out into the sunlight, looked up at the blue sky and all the curious faces waiting for him, and wondered why he felt so sure that he hadn't really brought an end to the situation, just a pause.
Anastasia stood on the ridge, leaning on a shovel, and used a handkerchief to wipe sweat from her brow. A chill ran up her back. Evening was not far off, and she had been digging for hours. There were dozens of other things she ought to have been doing, but she had needed simple, mindless, backbreaking work to cleanse some of the horror and sadness from her soul. The beauty of the mountain range and the lake ought to have helped, but instead, the entire landscape haunted her.
How had it come to this? They'd never meant to disturb anything sacred, certainly never thought to find anyone still living, who would hold such ancient sites sacred.
Mr. Lao had returned to Lhasa to make a full report about the murders at the dig site and the status of Nakchu village. Redfield, the BPRD pilot, had flown him there. She wondered if Lao's superiors would stop the dig, but presumed they would not. The Chinese government did not care if Tibetan sites were being unearthed, only that they reaped any benefits that might accrue. In fact, she suspected that if it bothered the local Tibetan peoples, the man from Beijing's bosses would be even happier.
Though they probably hadn't expected the local Tibetan people to be descended from dragon-human interbreeding.
Anastasia had reports to write as well. Professor Bruttenholm was already down in his tent, hard at work on his own. There would be an inquest, and further investigation, and her leadership and reputation would be called into question.
She felt it ought to be.
Kora Kyichu was back with her father, and she would not trade that for anything. The relief on Han's face and the joyful tears the little girl had cried convinced her that she would have done it all over again, even with the same results.
But three men were dead, and she found the burden difficult to bear. Conrad had been a pompous ass, but his arrogance was well-founded. He had been brilliant. She had not known Sima, the Russian digger, other than to say hello, but he had been a hard worker, and she had learned he had a family--a wife and two sons. Then there was Rafe--sweet, young Rafe, who had been her most promising student in years and had been willing to flirt with her a little, just to make her feel good about herself. He'd been little more than a child himself.
All three of them lay dead, wrapped in cloth in the preparatory chamber to keep the bodies cool while a message was sent to London and Beijing to get a team up to Lake Tashi to retrieve their bodies. The irony of their remains lying in the sacrificial chamber was not lost on her. It made her feel sick.
"Stop it," she whispered to herself.
Anastasia took a deep breath and lifted her shovel, driving it into the earth. The preparatory chamber was off-limits for now, but all of the other excavations continued. She bent to the work, letting the ache in her bones wash away all thoughts of death and blame for a time.
Until she looked up to see Professor Bruttenholm standing nearby, watching her as he stroked his white goatee.
Anastasia stood up, stretching her back, and regarded him curiously. The cool breeze dried the beads of sweat on her skin.
"Is something the matter, Professor?"
Bruttenholm produced a pocket watch and clicked it open, glancing at it a moment before snapping it shut. He looked around, scanning the area, though what his gaze sought, she had no idea.
"Yes, sorry," Bruttenholm said, clearing his throat. When he spoke, it was with a low, sonorous voice, grimly sincere. "I'd hoped you might spare me a moment, Dr. Bransfield."
"Anastasia, please. Or Stacie."
The old man flinched, as though the informality pained him.
"What can I do for you, sir?"
"I fancy myself a practical man, Dr. Bransfield. I know that the idea of a father wishing to shield his son from the complexities of human emotion beyond childhood is awkward and even somewhat ridiculous. But he is no ordinary son."
Anastasia stared at him. "I'm not sure what sort of point you're trying to make--"
"One would think I would be ecstatic to have him endure such trials, that I would be overjoyed by the real humanity in his heart. To the latter, I say that I am. But as to the former...I am only human myself, and a father, and no amount of practicality can cure me of the wish not to see my son endure disappointment and heartbreak."
That was enough. She let her shovel fall aside and crawled out of the hole she'd been digging. Professor Bruttenholm was a diminutive man, an inch or so shorter than Anastasia, but he did not back up an inch as she bent toward him, finger wagging. She knew she must look a fright, dirt and sweat streaking her forehead and cheeks, her ponytail and Yankees cap the only thing keeping her hair from falling wild as a mane around her face. Bruttenholm did not blink.
"You see here, old man!" she snapped, all sense of propriety lost, her face flushed will ill temper. "I've said and done precisely nothing to indicate to Hellboy that I hoped to rekindle old flames. Dear God, you think, what, that all of this is some kind of enormous ruse for me to play some kind of romantic charade? People are dead, Professor! Friends of mine are dead, up in that damned chamber!"
Anastasia fumed, wanting desperately for Bruttenholm to shout back at her so there could be a proper screaming match. She needed that. The old fool didn't know what he was in for, making such accusations.
He did not rile so easily.
"Forgive me, Doctor, if I've been unclear. Age causes one to ramble. I know the cost of this journey has been high, and I meant to imply no such thing. The truth is, I know that calling upon the BPRD and upon my son was the only sensible, rational thing for you to do when you were faced with the unfortunate circumstances that arose here. Though I'd be lying if I said I didn't wish you had thought of some other course of action. My point in speaking to you on this matter was only to make an observation."
Anastasia wiped dirt from her cheeks and bent down to pick up the shovel. The dusk was coming on, night beginning to spread across the plateau. She was tempted to jump back down into the hole, but they both knew the digging was done for the day.
"Say what you've got to say," Anastasia muttered.
"He still loves you, but you know that. And now I see that he is not the only one who still lingers in the past. With all that is happening here, it would be quite easy for old habits to reemerge, for old feelings to come alive."
"It was ten years ago!"
"Sometimes embers take only an errant breeze to ignite again."
Her face flushed, and she was glad of the dark, hoping he didn't see how much the words affected her. Bruttenholm spoke the truth. He knew it, but Anastasia didn't want him to see that she knew it as well.
"Maybe you've forgotten," she said, half-turning away from him. "Hellboy is the one that ended the relationship."
Bruttenholm nodded slowly. "And perhaps you have forgotten, Anastasia, why he felt compelled to do such a thing and why he has maintained a solitary life in the years since."
She shivered, and it wasn't from the cold.
"He said it wasn't fair to me, all the attention we drew, all the things that were said in the media--"
"That was part of it, I'm sure," Professor Bruttenholm said, smoothing his lapels, dignified as always. "But you know there is more to it."
"You said all the things he's felt have made him more human," she protested, hearing the sorrow in her voice, the heartbreak, and cursing herself for showing such weakness in front of this stern old man.
"They have," Bruttenholm replied. "But every time the media mentioned you and him together, every time he saw the expressions on the face of those you met in your travels...every time he held your hand, Dr. Bransfield, it reminded him that he is only human in his heart."
With that, the old man turned and strode away.
Anastasia could only watch him go, feeling bitterness welling up within her. Hellboy could not help what he felt, and nor could she. If he had never been the same after the time they had shared together, she could not regret that. She had never been the same, either.
Some things weren't meant to be forgotten.
The Island of Crete, 14 April, 1980
Hellboy was dead.
Anastasia staggered along the slope of Mount Ida, hands manacled behind her back, a thick gag in her mouth. The men behind her did not touch her, and the two in front--the sorcerers--did not so much as glance back. It sickened her to know how little they considered her. She represented no threat, so she registered only for what use they could make of her. She was only bait, the worm at the end of the hook.
But she had been bait for a week, perhaps more. Locked in the wine cellar of some villa, gagged and blindfolded, she had wept, and she had cried out in pain. They had burned her for their pleasure with the tips of cigarettes. Some of them had pawed at her in the way that men did. They had taunted her in a dozen languages and spit upon her. But no worse.
Anastasia had found that strange. For days she had pondered her good fortune. They hadn't raped her, or tortured her in earnest, or slit her throat. When they'd taken her out of the wine cellar, away from the rich, earthy aroma of that room, and paraded her outside, still blindfolded and gagged, she had not understood. At first she'd thought they were taking her elsewhere to kill her, but after an hour or so of this, they'd returned her to the wine cellar.
They'd fed her and given her water. Kept her alive. And the next day, they'd paraded her again, as though showing her off to some unseen watcher.
And then she'd understood that she was bait. They wanted Hellboy to come after them. They'd prepared for him, and for whoever else he might bring along. Twice, when her blindfold had been removed while she was allowed to use a filthy child's potty as a toilet, she saw the sorcerers at work, men and women who slipped in and out of shadows with a flourish, as though they were dancing in darkness.
Whenever they were there, she caught a scent that reminded her of burning plastic. Now she knew the odor of dark magic. Snatches of conversation she'd overheard spoke of the hammer and the anvil and the forge, none of which made any sense to her.
A week. More. Behind her blindfold, sleeping only in fits and starts, afraid at every moment that her usefulness was at an end, the days blurred into one another. Days and days, and at first she had been filled with righteous anger along with her fear. Hellboy would come, and he would make them pay. They would hurt. God, would they regret having taken her, touched her, burned her.
But Hellboy never came.
In her heart--where she cherished her love for him and all the little moments they'd shared, despite the world's ignorance--she knew that he must be dead. He would have come for her, otherwise. It was the only possibility. And if Hellboy was dead, then she truly had outlived her usefulness.
Now, tonight, the proof had come.
Two of the sorcerers had come. Four others--three men and a woman--had taken her at gunpoint out of the villa and loaded her into the back of a truck. They hadn't bothered with her blindfold, and then, of course, she had known. She'd tried not to think about it, looking down at the beauty of Crete in the moonlight, sprawled around them. The sorcerers had not vanished into darkness this time. They had sat with her in the back of the truck with two of the gunmen.
The truck had rattled all the way along the rutted road that led up the side of Mount Ida, then off the road, at an angle that made her fear they would tumble over, the vehicle rolling all the way down the side of the mountain. They'd stopped and dragged her out, and for the first time in days, Anastasia had screamed against the inside of her gag.
She felt too numb to cry as they marched her toward a scarred and pitted area of the mountain, where tall caves stood open. Scaffolding had been erected all over the entrances to the caves, and in the pits in the mountainside, tiny flags dotted the soil, strung with twine, bits of the archaeological dig partitioned off so that it could be searched more methodically.