He crouched by the water. The sulfurous, chemical smell that wafted up from the lake made him wrinkle his nose and gag. Abe cupped a hand over his nose and mouth to try to limit how much of that odor got through. With the other, he reached out to dip his fingers into the water.
Hissing through his teeth, Abe pulled back his hand. It might not be hot enough to boil, but the lake water had seared his fingers. For the first time, he realized that it was not impossible that it would come to a boil, if nothing was done. Already the fish were dying--were probably all dead. Soon what vegetation remained underwater would also be destroyed by the superheating of the lake.
He brought his stinging fingers to his nostrils and inhaled. The power of the scent made his eyes water. Abe blinked and stood up, backing away. He wiped his fingers on the bottom of his jacket and stepped back. When his boot hit a patch of soft soil on the shore, his heel sunk in deeply. Some of the sandy earth slipped away, spilling toward the water, and a small channel formed. Water rushed in to fill the depression.
Abe stared down at the tiny rivulet he'd made with that one step, collapsing part of the shore. The soil seemed to be spilling downward into the lake, like the tiniest avalanche. There had been no further tremors since the one that had harbingered the appearance of the Dragon King, but the lake bottom remained unsteady. Judging by the loose soil on the shore, the situation had worsened.
He backed away, pulse racing. He shook his head and turned, striding quickly toward the half dozen others who'd remained behind with him. Corriveau and Gibson were bent over a map of the region, talking with each other and gesturing from time to time to the ridge where the excavated ruins had been buried once more. Neil Pinborough sat with an assault rifle slung across his shoulder, gripped in both hands, staring at the surface of the lake with total vigilance.
Nearby, Professor Bruttenholm and Professor Kyichu were conducting a conversation with Mr. Lao. The black-suited man showed no sign that their words were even reaching him.
Abe strode over to them.
"Excuse me, Professor," he said to Bruttenholm. "You asked for an update."
"I did. Proceed, Abraham."
Abe glanced at Lao and Kyichu. He'd liked the linguistics expert at first, but now he wondered. As for Lao, Abe worked with one government agency and didn't trust it overmuch. He certainly wasn't going to trust the secretive, hard-edged lackey of an oppressive government. But Bruttenholm had asked for his report.
So he gave them all an estimate of the water temperature and its probable toxicity.
"I don't think the rising heat is our most significant problem, though," he added.
Professor Bruttenholm frowned at that, reaching up to stroke his goatee. "Elaborate, please."
"The lake bottom is unstable. We know that. I believe it's getting worse. I noticed a strange phenomenon on the shore, soil pouring into the water. I've postulated massive hollows under the lake. What concerns me is the possibility of a sinkhole of some kind. If the ground shifts, the entire plateau could collapse into the earth."
Mr. Lao stared at him, expressionless. Abe knew such things troubled many people, but he could not be intimidated by such tactics. He was virtually expressionless himself.
"You are suggesting a major geological event," Lao said.
"Yeah. That's what I'm suggesting."
Professor Kyichu laughed softly. "You've guessed this by watching a bit of the shore erode into the lake, a natural process that is constant."
"What I saw was not natural. I'm sorry to say it, but the Dragon King may not be the worst fate in store for us. If we stay here, we could be swallowed by the earth itself. Or buried alive by some kind of rockfall."
Kyichu glanced over at the other two remaining members of the archaeological team. "We're not going. We're staying right here until the excavation can be reopened. I'm not allowing anyone else to take credit for finding what I've already discovered."
"You?" Professor Bruttenholm said, alarm lighting his eyes. "Don't you mean your team? Dr. Bransfield is the leader of our expedition. You cannot think to take all of the credit yourself."
"That's not it at all," Kyichu scowled. "I want the credit to remain where it belongs, with those of us who made the discovery, not whoever shows up to scour the land of dangers and lays claim to the artifacts and history that will be found here."
Mr. Lao stared at him, eyes narrowing slightly, betraying the tiniest concern. "Credit where it is due, Professor Kyichu. As long as the artifacts in question remain in the hands of their rightful custodians."
Professor Bruttenholm arched an eyebrow. Abe thought for a moment that he might challenge Lao's ideas about what constituted the rightful custodianship of artifacts from an ancient Tibetan excavation, but then the old man turned his focus to Kyichu.
"Han, I won't attempt to convince you to leave the dig site again--"
"Excellent. It's becoming tiresome," Professor Kyichu replied.
Bruttenholm's nostrils flared in irritation. Abe had studied the man's facial expressions for years. It was one of the reasons he found himself troubled by Lao's almost total lack of such expression.
"I'll only remind you," Professor Bruttenholm went on, "that Kora has suffered a terrible trauma, and now she's been separated from her father so soon afterward. To lose you at this point would be a blow from which she might never recover."
Hatred flashed in Han Kyichu's eyes. "Don't trouble yourself, Trevor. Kora understands what must be done here."
That was when Abe knew that the professor had become truly irrational. He had seemed to love his daughter very much, and been terrified for her, but from the moment the Dragon King had shown himself, Professor Kyichu's priorities had shifted drastically. Abe could not be certain if it was fame or simply the lifelong dream of an archaeologist to discover something significant, but the man had obviously subordinated all other concerns to his need to be associated with this project. His personal safety, and his daughter's well-being, were secondary. Abe had never been accused of callousness but began to feel that Han Kyichu deserved whatever would come next.
"Gentlemen, I think you might not be getting how much danger we're in with every moment we stay here," Abe told them.
"We're not fools, creature," Lao said dismissively.
Abe bristled. He thought about decking the man. If Hellboy had been there, he probably would have held Lao upside down by one ankle and shaken him, just for amusement.
Professor Bruttenholm flinched as if he'd been slapped. He stepped between them. "You may refer to my associate as Agent Sapien or Mr. Sapien or even Abe--"
"Actually, Mr. Sapien would be fine," Abe interrupted.
Lao held his hands up in apology. "I am sorry. I did not realize the word would offend you. But the sentiment remains. We're well aware of the danger."
Abe had his doubts. Did Lao truly understand that whatever geological changes were taking place might be far more perilous than the Dragon King? But he had issued the warning. As long as the British Museum expedition members were evacuated before anything worse happened, the job was done.
Professor Kyichu, perhaps fuming over the words exchanged with Bruttenholm and the suggestion that he did not have his daughter's best interests at heart, turned and walked over to the student, Corriveau, and the digger, Gibson--the only two foolish enough to stay behind with him.
Abe lost track of the conversation for a moment, and when he tried to catch up, he found Professor Bruttenholm and Mr. Lao discussing weapons.
"--realize that bullets and even mortar fire will probably not be sufficient to destroy the Dragon King?" Bruttenholm said.
Lao nodded. "Let us hope that your Hellboy is successful in discovering how the beast was defeated the last time it emerged. I have given it some thought, however. There are other sorts of helicopters I could summon if they become necessary. But it would take time to get them here. While we wait, I have another idea, a way that perhaps we might at least slow the serpent down. On the next evacuation trip that our pilots make to Lhasa, I will have them retrieve something that will help us. That is, if you'll allow me to instruct your pilot."
Abe stiffened. He didn't like the sound of that.
But Professor Bruttenholm nodded. "As long as your request doesn't interfere with getting those people out of here, we'll cooperate fully."
Lao smiled. "I thought you might."
Moments later, they heard the rhythmic chop of a helicopter and looked up to see one of the two under Lao's command speeding toward them from the west. Twelve commandos--for that's what they truly were--leaped from the chopper as it set down and rushed toward Lao. They lined up, at attention, until he barked at them in Chinese as though he was embarrassed by their deference. The commandos took up a position in a scattered pattern along the lakeshore, on guard. As if they would do more than annoy the Dragon King.
Lao went to speak to the pilot of the helicopter, presumably about retrieving the British Museum expedition members from the monastery on the eastern hill.
Less than twenty minutes later, Redfield returned from Lhasa, ready for another evacuation run. Abe briefed him on the monastery and the professor's agreement with Lao before Bruttenholm brought the man from Beijing over to speak with the burly, bearded pilot.
Redfield didn't seem to like working with Lao any more than Abe did, but he didn't balk. Abe noticed that the pilot's eyes wandered to the surface of the lake several times while Lao spoke to him. The fourth time, Abe frowned and glanced over to see what kept Redfield so distracted.
The steam off the lake had altered. This was no low mist, but a fogbank of steam in the cold air.
And beneath the surface lurked an orange glow. The fire under the lake had grown, and spread.
Paris, France, 28 February, 1981
Hellboy could never have imagined a more perfect day. Winter had seemed to retreat for the day, and there'd been a hint of spring in the air. Stasia was still bundled up in a thick coat, but several times the sun had shone so strongly down upon them that he had carried it for her, over his arm, like a true gentleman. It felt odd, but also nice.
With Stasia on his arm, he drew longer stares than usual, but somehow found himself better able to ignore them. Together they had sat inside a cafe along the Seine and gazed alternately at one another and out the window at the river flowing by. The coffee had been heavenly, and the Parisian discourse had gone on around them, talk of politics and art, talk of studies at the Sorbonne and the latest films. Hellboy didn't think he'd ever seen a people who loved to talk more than the French.
Curiously, they seemed unwilling to talk about him while he was in the room. The French had always seemed to welcome him. As he and Anastasia strolled along the river and stopped in dress shops and hat shops for her, people reacted with surprise at the sight of him. Yet they did not look frightened, only fascinated.
This time of year, the street performers and vendors were mostly absent from Paris, even on a day that flirted with spring. Hellboy didn't mind. Wandering along the river and along the boulevards of Paris when so few people were out and about gave the city an intimacy he had only dreamed of. Late in the afternoon, when it grew dark, they stopped in a restaurant, only to find that neither of them was very hungry. Their dinner consisted almost entirely of bread, cheese, and wine.
When they emerged, the City of Light had blossomed into full illumination. The colors were breathtaking along the Boulevard Saint Germain, and the bright lights in the darkness along the river seemed to transport them back to a simpler time. Together, they had ranged around the world for nearly two years, with few opportunities to simply wander. They'd seen some of the most beautiful vistas the planet had to offer, after hard days of work or travel, but rarely with the time to do nothing but soak it in.
Paris had been peaceful for them today, and tonight would be the perfect culmination. The results of Anastasia's most recent archaeological dig would be unveiled as part of a new exhibit at the Louvre. Hellboy could tell she was a bit nervous, but the city provided a wonderful distraction.
Meandering along the Seine as the night came on and the winter chill returned, Stasia seemed giddy from the wine. She halted on the sidewalk and tugged his hand, turning him around to face her. Grinning up at him, she stood on her toes and reached up to caress his granite features. Hellboy bent to kiss her, her lips so soft on his. Somewhere, distant music played, a tinny sort of melody that he imagined piping from the windows of some World-War-II-era nightclub. The lights of Paris glittered all around them, the river sparkling with reflection.
The perfect night. He'd seen such bliss a thousand times in old movies but never imagined it to be more than fiction. Even if it had been true for ordinary guys, it couldn't be real for him.
Or so he'd thought.
In public with Anastasia, he always felt vaguely absurd and clumsy. It helped to focus on her. The previous day, upon their arrival in Paris, she'd convinced him to shed his well-worn duster. Together they'd shopped for a new coat, and Hellboy had settled on a charcoal gray greatcoat that had a similar cut to his duster but would not be quite so out of place at the Louvre.
Now the time had come.
They stood hand in hand at the entrance to the sprawling museum.
"Excited?" Hellboy asked.
Stasia turned to look at him, reached up to smooth the lapels of his wool coat. People passed them on the steps up toward the grand facade of the Louvre, a structure worthy of inclusion within its own exhibits.
"Aren't you?" she asked.
"It's your accomplishments they're celebrating tonight."
She took his massive right hand in both of hers and ran her fingers over it almost as though the rough, hard texture of it was her own personal worry stone.
"Our accomplishments," Stasia said quietly. "You're part of this. A big part."
Hellboy smiled. Museum patrons entering the unveiling of the exhibit probably saw his expression and thought him angry. It was a common misconception. His features weren't made to smile. But Stasia knew his face well, and she smiled in return.