Once upon a time, there might have been something of interest inside that temple. If so, the time had passed. Hellboy walked the narrow confines of the place, reminding himself that it actually might be possible that a legend about a dwarf warrior monk fighting the king of dragons to a standstill could be true.
They left the temple. The look of disappointment on Stasia's face made him smile softly. He pointed across the hilltop with a massive finger.
"Let's try that one."
All four of them started across the meadow. Other than the circle of stones, the vultures above, and that second temple, they could see nothing but grass on top of that hill. When they reached the stone circle, Koh and Tenzin skirted its edges, apparently not wanting to walk across the place where some of their ancestors might have been stripped of their flesh by vultures and had their bones pounded to dust.
No. Not Koh's ancestors. They kept their dead in those caves, a tomb of dragons and their offspring.
"Tenzin," Hellboy said. "Ask Koh why Dwenjue didn't get a sky burial. Ask why he has a grave."
The guide began to translate, but then Hellboy saw that Stasia had stopped to study the circle of stones.
"What?" he asked.
She glanced at him, then back at the stones. Her finger traced the circle in the air. "Something odd about this. It's a bit different from the others I've seen. At least what I've seen in pictures."
"You've only ever seen one of these in pictures?"
"It's not the sort of thing they invite Westerners to."
Tenzin and Koh paused to watch them. The guide wore a curious expression. Koh started back toward the circle of stones.
Hellboy stepped between two of the waist-high markers. He studied them, searching for engravings or any trace of ancient images, but to no avail. He turned in a circle, taking in the locations of the two temples and the stones, wondering if there was significance to their placement or number.
"This is where Dwenjue's grave is supposed to be?" he asked, looking toward Koh.
Tenzin translated, and Koh nodded, staring at the ground at the center of the circle.
Hellboy's hoof struck stone, and he froze. It hadn't been a rock underfoot. He took two steps and kicked at the dirt several times until, once more, there came the clack of stone.
When he looked down, he caught the gleam of metal. The clouds were still thick and dark, hanging low, but enough light sifted through to glint off the iron ring set into the massive stone tablet, laid into the earth at the center of that stone circle.
It began, quite lightly, to rain. Droplets dampened the earth his hooves had disturbed.
Hellboy glanced up at Stasia. She'd removed her sunglasses and tucked them into the collar of her shirt. Her eyes were bright despite the growing storm.
"What do you want to bet?" he asked.
She crouched down and began to work her fingers around the edges of the round tablet, clearing some of the dirt away, defining its circumference.
"I never bet against you."
Koh started talking excitedly. Tiny hissing noises were made each time raindrops struck the fire that flickered from his eyes. Hellboy glanced over at Tenzin.
"What's he up in arms about?"
The guide dropped down to help Stasia clear off the edges of the slab. "Koh has never been here before. He has only heard about it from his father. The legend says that Dwenjue is buried on this hill, but he wasn't sure he believed it."
"And now he does?" Stasia asked.
Koh strode around the edges of the stone slab, nodding with satisfaction. Tenzin asked him the question, and the dragon-man looked up, his face still human though his eyes were on fire. When Koh replied, Tenzin translated.
"He's never seen anything quite like this," the guide said. "A durtro isn't supposed to have anything like this. He's right about that. It's nothing I'm familiar with, either. Koh believes that the iron handle is there because whatever this is--Dwenjue's tomb or something else--it is meant to be opened by one with strength far greater than any ordinary man. Even one of his own people couldn't do it alone."
All three of them were watching Hellboy in anticipation.
"What makes you think I can open it?" he asked.
"Come on, then, old bugger," Stasia teased. "Only one way to find out."
Hellboy stepped off the tablet, braced himself, and reached out to grasp the iron ring in his massive right hand. That hand wasn't made of stone, but the texture of it seemed strangely like that of the round slab in the ground. He gripped the iron ring tightly.
Koh and Tenzin looked on with rapt attention, obviously curious to know what was beneath that tablet and wondering if he could really lift it. Hellboy wondered the same things. Only Stasia seemed weighted with the true gravity of the situation. If they were wrong about Dwenjue, Hellboy was going to have to fight the Dragon King on his own. Lao's peacekeepers weren't going to be much help.
Hellboy took a breath, clamped his teeth, and pulled. For long seconds nothing happened. His tendons stood out like cables on his arms. With a great exhalation, he relaxed his grip. Frustrated, he glanced up at Stasia. She nodded once, urging him on.
Again, he pulled. The weight of the stone would be tremendous, but something else held the slab in place. It had been sealed shut, he felt sure. A single grunt escaped him. Jaws grinding, he threw himself backward, putting his entire body into the effort.
The round slab shifted, stone grinding against stone. Dust rose from its edges, then it lifted. A gasp of ancient air came from the darkness beneath. The rain spattered Hellboy's head, wet droplets running down his sawed-off horns and sliding down the back of his neck. The coolness felt good. He took another breath, then braced the stone against his body and repositioned his hands, releasing the iron ring and gripping the bottom of the slab.
With a low roar, he upended the massive slab, pushing it away. It started to roll like a wheel and crashed to the ground. Hellboy could feel the impact. Stasia was beside him in an instant. Now that there was no danger of being crushed by the stone, Tenzin and Koh stepped nearer.
The four of them stared down into the grave at the still, lifeless form of Dwenjue, the warrior monk. The dwarf lay clad in simple, rough, brown clothing. He had a long mustache that drooped on either side of his face, but not a hair on his gleaming pate. In his hands, the monk held a sword that had been buried with him. It pointed downward, toward his feet. The sword seemed nearly as tall as the monk himself.
Koh muttered something in an awestruck voice.
"How is it possible?" Stasia asked. She knelt at the side of the grave.
Hellboy understood her confusion. Dwenjue might have died centuries earlier, but he looked as though he'd been laid in the ground hours ago. If anything, he appeared far healthier than any of Hellboy's companions.
"Tenzin?" Hellboy asked.
The guide listened to Koh's mutterings a moment, then gestured into the grave. "He thinks the sword has mystical properties. That may be what has kept the body preserved."
Hellboy dropped to his knees and reached his huge right hand down into the pit.
"You're not going to disturb the site," Stasia said, the admonishment sharp.
He glanced up at her. "You can't be serious. This isn't a museum gig, babe. We may need to kill the Dragon King ourselves. If we can't have the monk who offed him the first time, the mystical sword is a decent runner-up prize. Anything will help, at this point."
Anastasia hesitated. He saw it in her eyes. The idea of disturbing an ancient grave, or any site of historical value, was anathema to her. But he spoke the truth, and she recognized that as well. She sighed and rolled her eyes, averting her gaze so she wouldn't have to see him desecrating the grave of Dwenjue.
Hellboy wrapped his hand around the blade.
Dwenjue's nostrils flared, and he breathed in. His features contorted as though he'd caught the scent of something that disgusted him. His eyes opened--small yellow eyes--and he stared at Hellboy for a moment.
"Crap," Hellboy muttered.
The dwarf monk's gaze shifted past him. True hatred engraved itself upon his face, and perhaps a bit of madness, and the monk let out a cry and thrust himself up from the grave. The rain fell harder, spattering off his bald head and the glistening sword.
Hellboy backed off, raising his hands. "Whoa, Tattoo. Hold on. Tenzin, tell him we're friends. Tell him!"
The guide had scrambled backward in terror, but now started talking to the yellow-eyed warrior in hard, sharp words. Hellboy moved in front of Anastasia protectively.
But Dwenjue had no interest in Anastasia. He sniffed the air, the rain pounding the ground all around them, and spun to glare at Koh. He screamed one word, and lunged.
Koh shifted instantly, his face elongating, his skin altering to the rough scale of dragons. The fire bloomed from his eyes, and he lowered himself into a defensive crouch. When the sword whickered through the air and the rain, Koh managed to dart out of the way. He did not try to attack, shouting at Dwenjue instead, trying to explain.
"We don't have time for this," Hellboy muttered. He shot a glare at Tenzin. "What's he doing?"
The guide shook his head. "He smells dragon! What do you think he's doing?"
Anastasia moved past Hellboy at a run. Dwenjue brought his sword back for another swing, and she grabbed hold of his wrist. Dwenjue glared at her with those yellow eyes and started to shake her off. Then Hellboy was there beside her. He picked up the little warrior by the wrists, keeping the sword far away from him.
"You wake up nasty," Hellboy said.
Tenzin and Koh continued to shout at him.
Dwenjue blinked, and soon the hatred and madness seemed to lift from his eyes. All the tension went out of him, and the warrior monk replied, quietly, staring at Koh.
"What's he saying?" Stasia asked.
"He wants to know how long he's slept. And he wants to know how long the Dragon King has been awake," Tenzin replied.
Hellboy nodded toward Dwenjue. "Ask him how he knows the worm's awake."
The monk, the guide, and the dragon-man conversed a few moments, then Tenzin glanced at Hellboy and Anastasia again.
"He thought he had been victorious against the Dragon King, but the rest of the monks were not certain. They asked him to sleep here in eternal peace, never to be disturbed unless the Dragon King returned. We woke him. The scent of dragons is in the air. All he wants is to fulfill his destiny, to destroy the Dragon King forever, and return to his rest. Or to die."
Hellboy looked down at the diminutive monk with the fierce eyes. "I like his style."
"Right, then," Anastasia said. "Tell him what he needs to know, and let's get to work."
By dusk, Redfield and Lao's pilot had taken most of the evacuees to Lhasa on board their two helicopters. A small handful of evacuees were left at the monastery, but it had been decided that those few would have to take shelter there for the night. The consensus seemed to be that the Dragon King was likely to come after dark, and Bruttenholm and Lao agreed that they ought to be at full strength when that happened. If the dragon hadn't emerged by dawn, the last group of evacuees would be airlifted from the monastery shortly thereafter and returned to Lhasa.
For tonight, they would have to fend for themselves.
Redfield and Lao's pilot had returned from their latest trip to Lhasa well armed, and with the surprises that the man from Beijing had promised. There were handheld antitank missiles with infrared guidance systems, at least two dozen American-made M47s, ironically called "Dragons." The black helicopter guided by Lao's pilot had delivered several portable surface-to-air missile systems whose make Abe didn't recognize. It reminded him of some European model he'd seen--the stand and gyrostabilizers were similar--but it had to be a Chinese model. There'd been no time to outfit the helicopters with missiles, but he thought these would do just as well. If the Dragon King could be brought down with flying explosives, they would do the trick.
Besides, the choppers would be otherwise engaged delivering Lao's real surprise. Half a dozen enormous, electrified nets had been procured from some strange black box Chinese government warehouse in Lhasa. Abe had asked him what their purpose was and why they were in Lhasa to begin with.
"What are nets for, Mr. Sapien, but to capture things?"
Lao would not elaborate further, though Abe pressed him. He wondered how many things happened around the world--how many odd, dangerous, perhaps unnatural things--that the BPRD never caught wind of. The nets certainly implied that the Chinese government had needed to capture something huge and deadly before. Abe wondered if it had worked, but since the BPRD had never learned of it, he could only presume it had.
Some kind of monster, or demon, he figured. His big question, though, was what the Chinese had done with the beast after they'd caught it. Abe decided he didn't want to know.
The mist of steam had grown thicker atop the lake, but the glow of fire beneath the water had only brightened. The stink of sulfur rose from the water, and where the wind rippled the surface, the lake foamed. Abe stared at the water, scanned the lake from end to end, then turned from the shore to join Professor Bruttenholm. Idly, barely aware of it, he kept his right hand on the grip of his sidearm.
The professor stood in the lee of the rocky hillside with Mr. Lao and his commandos. The night sky had been obscured by clouds since early afternoon, but now only a soft drizzle fell around them. Dim moonlight diffused by the gauzy cloud cover provided enough illumination to see by, but Professor Bruttenholm had forbidden them to use lantern, torch, or spotlight if they didn't have to. Drawing the attention of the Dragon King would be foolish, and probably fatal.
But the old man was working on that.
The commandos lined up in front of Professor Bruttenholm and stood calmly as he painted their faces with ocher, inscribing sigils with his index finger. Lao had gone first, as if to set an example for his men, to make certain that they cooperated. Abe joined them and waited patiently for Professor Bruttenholm to finish his work. As he drew on their foreheads and cheeks and around their eyes, he muttered a quiet incantation again and again.