Their presence soothed Abe. The heat of the water did not burn so terribly. The sulfurous taint in the lake did not choke him. They were lending him the strength of their spirits. The ghosts of those children had saved him.
He reached out, and his fingers passed through the little girl's hand, but the covenant was made. Abe would do whatever he could to aid them in return.
Hellboy couldn't understand a word Dwenjue said, but he liked the grim little warrior. The dwarf monk had a deadly serious disposition, a disdain for everything but getting his job done, and yellow eyes that glowed in the dark. He carried his long, mystical sword over his shoulder because if he'd put it into a scabbard, it would have dragged on the ground. Dwenjue wouldn't have been any fun at a pub, but on a mission to kill a monster that burned and ate people and demanded the sacrifice of small children in exchange for mercy, he was just the kind of guy Hellboy wanted along.
They'd gone back to the monastery to find only ten people remaining, including Sarah and Meaney. Apparently evacuating the rest at night had been deemed too dangerous. A helicopter would return for the last group at first light. Meanwhile, they had to hunker down for the night in the monastery. Hellboy had suggested that Tenzin and Stasia stay there, but neither of them would hear of it. The suggestion pissed Stasia off. The guide, on the other hand, just knew he was needed and had a job to do.
The five of them had trekked down from the monastery and turned west. Now they could see Lake Tashi ahead. Not a single light gave away the presence of BPRD agents or Chinese government forces on the northern shore. Hellboy picked up his pace. He knew worrying made little sense. Professor Bruttenholm would have insisted they move in darkness to avoid drawing the dragon's attention if it came up after dark. The only illumination came from the lake itself, which seemed to have caught fire far below the surface.
"It's beautiful," Stasia said.
"That's one way to look at it," Hellboy replied.
"It's terrible, too."
He only nodded. Both descriptions were correct. Whatever happened in the next twenty-four hours or so, there was a kind of breathtaking magic to it, and a brutal ugliness as well.
Koh marched on his left and Dwenjue on his right, that sword over his shoulder. Tenzin and Stasia followed close behind them. Hellboy felt like he was trudging with cement blocks around his legs. He could endure just about anything, but that didn't stop him from getting tired. How Stasia and the guide were managing to keep walking was a mystery to him.
They followed the lakeshore to the right. Hellboy figured they had three-quarters of a mile or so before they'd get to the location of the original camp, just below the dig on the ridge.
Dwenjue muttered something.
"What'd he say?" Hellboy asked, glancing back at Tenzin.
"He smells dragon. And it isn't Koh."
From the look of the water, with that firelit mist swirling on the surface, Hellboy wasn't surprised.
"Something's going on down there," Stasia said, and he could hear uncharacteristic fear in her voice.
Koh picked up the pace, nearly breaking into a run. As he moved, his body changed again, his dragon features coming out, the fire starting in his eyes again. Hellboy made to shout after him, but then he saw the way the water had begun to churn.
"Stasia," he said.
"Run!" she shouted.
They sprinted along the shore toward the place where they knew the remainder of the camp lay. Hellboy heard shouting, then the roar of helicopters whirring to life.
The lake exploded with fire and a fountain of scalding water. The Dragon King snaked into the sky, and the helicopters were in pursuit. As he ran, leaving Stasia and Tenzin behind, only Koh and--amazingly--Dwenjue able to keep pace with him, he watched as the choppers flanked the dragon in the sky, watched them drop their nets.
When the dragon shrieked its pain, Koh cried out as well, though whether in triumph or sympathy, Hellboy could not tell. Gunfire and rocket fire came from the darkness ahead, and Hellboy followed the tracers back to their launch point. They trampled the spot where the original camp had been burned.
The dragon shrieked again. It writhed in the air, beginning to tear free of the nets, which crackled with electricity and smoked as it struggled against them. Shouts came from the ridge to the right, and Hellboy looked up to see the archaeologists who'd been stupid enough to stick around with Han Kyichu sliding and practically crashing down the rocky slope of the hill toward them.
"Go!" Stasia snapped. "I'll deal with them."
"Keep them quiet!" Hellboy barked at her.
He ran on, though he felt part of him tethered to Stasia as he left her behind, wondering if those were the last words they'd ever exchange. Dwenjue barreled along beside him, somehow fleet of foot in spite of his size and the massive sword. The yellow eyes weren't the only magic in the little monk. Koh had bent low to the ground and ran with a strange, reptilian smoothness.
Ahead, the commandos Lao had brought in were using both shoulder-launched rockets and others on portable stands. As Hellboy watched, one struck the red underbelly of the Dragon King and exploded, blowing a bloody wound in the thing's scaly hide. Another wound showed a previous strike. A second missile went off right at the serpent's neck as it thrashed in those electrified nets, the helicopters buzzing around it. That explosion didn't harm it at all.
"The red stripe!" Hellboy shouted as he thundered toward the commandos, forgetting that they could not understand him. As with so many other armored creatures, the dragon's belly was vulnerable.
Assault weapons fire punctured the night in staccato bursts. Hellboy ran, now leaving even Koh and Dwenjue behind. Up ahead, behind the commandos, exhorting them on, he saw his father and Lao. Professor Bruttenholm had some kind of war paint on his face. It took Hellboy a second to realize that Lao and the commandos had it as well, then another second to figure out that these were wards.
"Crap," he snarled. If the wards were working, keeping the dragon from seeing them, then his arrival and that of his companions would draw the big worm's attention right here.
Professor Bruttenholm shouted at Lao over the weapons fire. He gestured toward the helicopters, then to the commandos. Hellboy felt a spark of pride seeing the old man taking command in the field. Whatever danger they were in, Trevor Bruttenholm had it under control.
The dragon screamed.
Hellboy spun around just in time to see dragon fire strafe one of the helicopters. Men were set ablaze as the chopper was engulfed in flames. The fuel tank exploded, and Hellboy slid to a halt, staring in horror as the helicopter careened into the southern cliff face, leaving nothing but burning metal shrapnel to fall into the lake.
He sensed rather than saw Stasia, Tenzin, and the two expedition members who'd been with the absent Kyichu come up behind him, staggered by the sight. Koh hissed low in his throat. Dwenjue took a step toward the shore, those yellow eyes gleaming.
Professor Bruttenholm called to him, but Hellboy could not tear his gaze from the Dragon King. The serpent thrashed hard enough to tear itself loose from the nets. Its body whipped in the air, and Hellboy shouted in fury and anguish as it struck the second chopper.
The helicopter's engine whined as it spun through the air. Redfield might have been the best pilot Hellboy had ever seen. He'd be struggling to get the thing under control. But even as the chopper twisted away at a dangerous angle from the Dragon King, a lone figure tumbled out of the chopper's open side door, dropping like a stone into the lake.
"Abe!" Hellboy roared.
The engine of Redfield's chopper shrieked. The pilot managed to right it, but it fell too quickly. Smoke came from the engine. Something broke off, and the net came loose, but now it swept upward instead of down, tangling itself in the chopper's undercarriage. Fifty feet off of the ground, it seemed to pull up a moment, as Redfield saved himself from crashing.
Electricity surged through the chopper, killing all of its operational systems. It crashed; then, glass shattering and metal screeching as it tore, but the main body of the helicopter remained intact. Redfield and whoever else was on board might still be alive if they were extremely lucky.
In pain, the Dragon King writhed back and forth in the air above the lake for several seconds, as though the sky and the ground were one and the same to the creature, despite its lack of wings. Then the worm twisted in the air and dived back into the fiery water, slipped under the surface, and was gone, save for the flames that burned in places right on top of the water, and the waves splashed up by its dive.
Hellboy ran for the water. Spindly fingers gripped his wrist and he turned, brows knitted in fury. His anger dissipated when he saw that it was his father who'd grabbed him.
"What do you think you're doing?" Professor Bruttenholm demanded.
Hellboy shook his hand off. "Going after Abe. He's still alive, but down there in the water, he might not be for much longer. You need to get some people over to the chopper, see if Redfield's alive, and whoever's with him--"
"Wait," the old man said. His damp, aged eyes gleamed with the reflection of the fire on the water. "I'm the leader of this investigation. You're not going anywhere."
"What are you talking about?" Anastasia demanded, whipping off her Yankees cap and marching up beside Hellboy to glare at the professor. "Abe's down there. You saw him fall. You can't imagine Hellboy's just going to stand here!"
Professor Bruttenholm stared at her. "You're not a part of this team, Dr. Bransfield. I am responsible for Abe Sapien, just as I'm responsible for all of you. The water is his natural element--"
"Not water like this!" Hellboy snapped.
Beyond his father, Hellboy saw Professor Kyichu scrambling down the rocky slope. He'd been hiding somewhere, but with the Dragon King gone again, he'd reared his crazy head.
"We've got to figure out how to destroy this creature before others die," Professor Bruttenholm said, his gaze shifting from Hellboy to Stasia and back again. He completely ignored the presence of Koh, Dwenjue, and Tenzin, and the quick approach of Lao and Kyichu. "Abe knows the risks of the mission. He will find his way out of the lake."
"If his brains aren't scrambled from the fall," Hellboy said, glaring at his father. "Besides, we know how to destroy the damned worm." He reached down and clapped a hand on Dwenjue's back. "Meet the warrior monk. Professional dragon killer. Now I'm going to save my friend."
He turned and started toward the water. Stasia stayed with him, walking down to the shore at his side, not trying to talk him out of it but just wanting to be with him every moment now, when the unimaginable could happen at any time. Hellboy knew his father would look after Redfield, and work with Dwenjue to figure out how to finish off the Dragon King. The professor was in charge, and he was good at it. That left Hellboy to do what had to be done. Abe would never have left him on his own. No way would he abandon his best friend.
More shouting filled the night behind him; this time it wasn't in English. Then Tenzin called his name. Hellboy turned to see the guide running after him, with Koh and Dwenjue on either side of him. The dragon-man moved low to the ground, as though the more time he spent around the Dragon King, the more like a full-blooded dragon he became.
"Dwenjue says there's a better way to do this," Tenzin told him.
Hellboy stared into the warrior monk's yellow eyes. "Talk to me."
Without translation, Dwenjue muttered something in reply and pointed to the water.
"He says the lake did not always look like this," Tenzin explained. "Once, the temple was here."
Anastasia put a hand on Hellboy's arm to steady herself. "I knew it."
"Dwenjue says the temple is still here. He keeps saying there is an easier way to save your friend."
"Well, tell him to get on with it, then."
Tenzin translated for Dwenjue, and the dwarf smiled for the first time since they had woken him from his centuries of sleep. He held the sword in both hands, blade pointed up at the night. The rain hissed as it touched the metal. It pattered the ground all around them and plinked at the surface of the steaming lake.
Dwenjue began to chant, and the sword glowed the same yellow as his eyes.
The ground rumbled beneath their feet. Hellboy grabbed hold of Stasia. Several of the commandos shouted, but already Professor Bruttenholm had four of them racing along the lakeshore toward the downed helicopter. The ground shook harder, and Tenzin went on one knee. Hellboy saw his father grab one of the missile launchers to keep himself upright.
A crack like the loudest thunder boomed across Lake Tashi. The water seemed to surge upward a moment, the mist of steam beginning to clear, then all went still.
Only the rain and the gleam of that mystic blade remained.
But, staring at the edge of the lake only a few feet away, Hellboy felt sure that what he saw was no hallucination.
The water had begun to recede.
The lake began to churn around Abe. It tugged at his limbs with such force that at first he thought the ghost children of Lake Tashi were pulling at him, attempting to drag him in a dozen different directions. But the ghosts--the lost spirits of those beautiful children--only swayed in the water like reeds, watching him.
Powerful currents plucked at Abe and yanked him back and forth, spun him around. A whirlpool formed, and he twisted into a funnel that sucked him down, down, into the depths of the lake. The ghost children darted through the water, unaffected by the pull of the currents.
Abe's mind swirled as though with the tug of the water. Already disoriented, he tried to pull his thoughts together, to build understanding from fragments of the moment. What was happening to him? To the lake? The water churned, but this couldn't be only the motion of the Dragon King passing under the surface. This was far more than that.
The suction of the currents that pulled at him meant the water in the lake had to be flowing somewhere else, and it could only be into deep trenches and crevices, into freshly opened hollows in the earth beneath the mountain plateau--beneath the water. Lake Tashi was draining away.