Abe tried to find a calm place within himself, the way he entered a meditative state sometimes when he had first been discovered and awoken in the custody of the BPRD, floating in a glass tube, a subject of scientific study. He'd gone into himself to combat the boredom and the invasive inquisitiveness of his doctors.
The water rushed around him so quickly that his gills could barely breathe. He closed his eyes to fight the vertigo and pulled his arms and legs tight to his body to lessen his body's drag on the water--reducing the speed with which the whirlpool spun him down and down.
The ghost children were little more than blurs at the edges of his vision. Whatever soothing effect their presence had had upon him vanished, and the water seared his flesh, the taint of it seeping in through his gills. Abe felt himself on the verge of losing consciousness again as a terrible nausea tore at his guts.
Through the membrane that covered his eyes he saw a bright flash. Abe opened them and saw a pillar of fire erupting from below, coming up from the soft lake bottom. He beat his arms and legs against the terrible current, trying to slow himself enough that he could see the bottom clearly.
It, too, was spilling away. The loose soil, he understood at last, had not been soil at all. Only one substance shifted so easily, even more fluid than sand. The entire bottom of the lake was comprised of ash--the burned remnants of ancient peoples, ancient cities, ancient terrain. Somehow the Dragon King had turned the whole lake bottom into a nest of ashes.
The ash drained away with the water.
Another powerful current tore at him and Abe was pulled deeper. He glanced around and realized that he could no longer see the ghost children of the sacrifices to the Dragon King. They had helped him, given him succor and spirit when he needed it most, and now they had withdrawn, leaving him indebted. Someone had to get vengeance for those children.
Fighting the maelstrom exhausted him. Abe felt his strength diminishing with every passing second. Jets of fire erupted below him at odd intervals, but the water did not seem to grow any hotter. Or perhaps his seared flesh had grown numb.
Got to stop, he thought. Soon, he would lose consciousness completely, and the thought of waking up in some subterranean cavern--if he woke at all--did not appeal to him. He would never be able to break the grip of the twisting currents by swimming upward or trying to slip from the whirlpool. Abe's only choice was to submit. He swam downward, spinning with the draining lake water. If he could just find an outcropping of rock or anything to grab hold of or wedge himself against, he could rest. He could fight the inexorable pull of the water.
Something flashed in the light of dragon fire, off to his right. For a moment, Abe thought that the ghost children had returned. As he spun, he fought the current a moment to get a better look, and what he saw made him surrender completely for a moment.
A row of short spires atop a curved, sloping roof, windows and carved columns and level upon level of those stone-tiled roofs--the most enormous temple he had ever laid eyes upon, too large for human occupation. The windows alone were a dozen feet high. The ashes that had made up the false bottom of the lake were sifting away from the temple, revealing it by inches, falling through into the subterranean hollows like sand through an hourglass. The lake water rushed down, the level dropping with every passing moment, and then Abe knew that the temple of the Dragon King--for surely that was what it was, what Anastasia had been searching for--might be his only hope.
With all the strength left in him, he struck out from the maelstrom, fighting it, and it swept him around, away from the temple. But the whirlpool kept spinning, and he rode it until it carried him closer than ever to those spires and that curved tile roof.
Abe kicked out, pulling toward it, knifing through the water. He reached out both arms to grab hold of one of those short, thick spires. The current slammed him into the spire, and he felt bones in his chest crack, but he held on. His arms and legs wrapped around the spire, tiles under him, and he latched himself there, refusing to let go. It felt as though that scalding water might scour the flesh from his bones, but Abe held on past the point of any conscious effort. If he'd died in that moment, they'd never have been able to unwrap his arms from that perch.
The water drained, rushing around him, and within minutes, the heat and drag of it lessened; then it dropped below the level of the roof. The cool night air swept over him. Gasping for breath, allowing his lungs to fill, feeling like he was coming awake from a dreadful slumber, Abe stared down at the temple of the Dragon King.
The sprawling, gigantic structure had been built on a slab of bedrock in the midst of the lake. The water seemed to be settling now at a level just below that bedrock, and he imagined that this was the original depth of the lake, back in those ancient times when the Dragon King had reigned.
On the bedrock island around the base of the temple, the yellow-and-red serpentine body of the Dragon King lay coiled. Fire jetted from its nostrils like twin furnaces.
Yet there were other flames as well, guttering like torchlight from the glassless windows of the temple. Things shifted and lumbered inside the structure beneath him. Abe felt their presence, felt the stones of the temple--for it had been built entirely of stone--settling and groaning with the motion of whatever monsters slithered in and out of the great halls of that place of worship.
First one, then two others, emerged from within, gliding out of the windows and through the air as though water still surrounded the temple. One had a small beard scruff like a billy goat, and the other two had small sets of antlers. The color of their scales differed, with two varying shades of red and orange and one almost black. The largest couldn't have been longer than fifteen feet, the smallest less than ten.
Hatchling dragons, the worshippers of the Dragon King. One of these things had bred with a human woman, and the half-breeds of Nakchu village had been the result.
They had been dead for hundreds upon hundreds of years. They had rotting holes where their eyes should have been, and their scaly hides were dry and cracked when they flew through the air or slid in through a window of the temple.
Undead dragon hatchlings. They had returned at last to a world lost to them. Their king slumbered, perhaps injured or simply resting, at the base of his temple. Soon, Abe felt sure, they would emerge from that island in what was left of Lake Tashi. They would want to create living dragons, to begin again the Dragon King's reign of fire. The mountains would be scoured of life, but they wouldn't stop there. He felt confident of that. Lhasa was not so far away, after all. There were many children there, and many people to give the Dragon King the fear and obedience he required.
With an awful whistle, a missile tore down into the sunken lake and struck the sleeping Dragon King. It woke and raised its head, growling deep in its chest. Abe stared into the eyes of the dragon, even as more of his dead hatchlings stirred, sliding like worms from the temple windows. One of them took flight, whipping back and forth in the air, small eagle talons clutching at the sky. It banked around, prowling; and then it turned toward Abe.
The rotting, withered dragon thing flew toward him. Abe clung to the roof of the temple and wished he were anywhere else.
Hellboy stood at the edge of what had once been the lakeshore. The water level had dropped by a hundred feet or more. Beside him, Anastasia clung to one arm, weak with her astonishment.
"It's beautiful," she said.
"Aside from the zombie dragons on fire, you mean?"
She ignored the sarcasm. "It's like nothing I've ever seen before. I'd only imagined how huge it must have been. It never occurred to me that the temple might have been the true home of the dragons, that it wouldn't be part of the city itself."
Dwenjue lowered his sword, and the yellow glow of the blade cooled. The warrior monk's eyes retained their color. Rain sprinkled his bald pate, drizzling upon them all, now. The fire from Koh's eyes seemed to dance around, trying to avoid the droplets. Tenzin had his rifle in his hands, as if he might be thinking about taking some potshots at the sleeping Dragon King or his undead clan.
"Nice trick," Hellboy told Dwenjue.
The dwarf looked up, confused, until Tenzin translated. Dwenjue replied, and the guide smiled and glanced at Hellboy.
"He says it isn't a trick. It's the purity of his spirit that allows him to touch the world."
Hellboy nodded. "Clean living. I keep meaning to take that up."
His father had taken some of Lao's commandos along the shore to see if Redfield and his passenger were still alive. The other black-garbed soldiers had been shaken from their aggression by surprise and perhaps a bit of awe. Even Mr. Lao stared, unsure what to do. Their weapons were not going to solve this problem.
Corriveau and Gibson had found the ocher paint Professor Bruttenholm had used to dab wards on the faces of the others and were trying to copy the sigils. It wouldn't do a damn bit of good, since they didn't know the incantation involved, but Hellboy didn't bother to tell them that. They'd only panic more.
Professor Kyichu ignored them. He pushed his way between two commandos and staggered to the edge of the steep drop-off down to the water, where the temple stood upon an island in the midst of what had once been called the Dragon King Pool.
"So many," Han Kyichu whispered.
Hellboy turned to look at him. He could feel his mouth twisting into a sneer and could not help it.
"Guess you wish you'd left with your daughter, now."
The white-haired man stared at the rotting, burning dragons that kept spilling out of the temple as if he hadn't heard a word.
"So many," he whispered again.
"Stasia," Hellboy said, turning to her. "Get him out of here."
She frowned, a storm brewing in her eyes. "I'm bloody well coming down there with you. I've been up against monsters before, and I'm a better shot than you by half."
"More than half," he replied, one corner of his mouth lifting. Hellboy reached out and touched a lock of hair that had escaped both her ponytail and her baseball cap and tucked it behind her ear. "You're a way better shot than I am. But we've been through this. Take a look down there, Stasia. The odds aren't great. Lao's people, they're soldiers. You're not. Me? I'm damn hard to kill. I'm thinking Dwenjue's pretty durable as well, living as long as he has. Koh may be easily breakable, but he's not--"
Hellboy closed his mouth so hard his teeth clacked.
Neither of them needed to hear him say the next word that would have come from his lips. Once again, here it was. Anastasia might be intelligent and courageous, but she had the fatal flaw of being human. Hellboy didn't have that problem, no matter how much effort he spent pretending to himself that that wasn't the case.
Fiercely, almost as if she were striking him, Stasia reached up and grabbed his head with both hands, pulling him down to kiss him hard. Hellboy liked it. It hurt his heart how much he liked it.
"Go get Abe," she said. When she released his face, she practically pushed him away. In a whisper so low he could not hear it, she added something else. Three words. If he'd been any good at reading lips, he thought maybe it would have been almost impossible for him to walk away from her.
"Tenzin," Hellboy said, "you're staying here. Tell Koh and Dwenjue we're just gonna have to go without communication from this point."
The guide translated quickly, his disappointment over not joining them obvious in his tone. Hellboy admired him for that. While Tenzin spoke, Dwenjue and Koh nodded. The warrior monk laid his mystic blade across his shoulder again, ready to attack.
Koh opened his long, dragon jaws and for the first time, when he spoke, Hellboy thought he could see a flicker of flames in his throat. He snarled something.
"He says that the time for talk is over. There will be no more worship for the Dragon King."
"Took the words right out of my mouth," Hellboy said.
Some of the rotting dragons had begun to fly around the temple. Hellboy saw Abe clinging to a post on top of the roof. Others of the dead things nuzzled their sleeping king, while still more began to slither skyward, toward the upper rim, where Hellboy stood waiting. Lao barked orders, and his remaining soldiers took up positions behind Hellboy.
He cast one last glance at Anastasia, then stepped off the edge of the shore, hooves digging into the damp slope of the lake basin that had been underwater only minutes before. Dwenjue and Koh descended the slope with him, the commandos following close behind, silent and grim.
As they neared the new shore of the diminished lake--of the Dragon King Pool--nighttime shadows thrown by the burning worms in the air, a noise like machine-gun fire filled the air. Hellboy flinched, but a second later, he knew what he'd heard.
He looked to the southwest and saw black helicopters whirring through the curtains of rain and hanging storm clouds. There must have been nine or ten, and perhaps some were so cloaked in darkness that there were even more. Reinforcements had arrived, both Chinese government and BPRD.
He wondered how much difference they would make.
With the Dragon King, he figured very little. The battle against the lord of them all wasn't going to come down to helicopters and explosives. This was a place of legends, and the end would be the stuff of such legends, not of men and guns.
On the other hand, as they waded into what was left of the lake, Hellboy sort of wished he'd brought along a missile launcher, or maybe a box of grenades. Something that would blow up dead, squirming, burning things that might otherwise want to eat him.
The withered dragon slid through the air toward Abe. Abe held on to the spire atop the temple of the Dragon King, trying to think of some other way to fight the worm besides hand to hand. Fire churned up from its nostrils and eyes and mouth and from all the tears in its rotting flesh. Whatever it was--some remnant of an ancient species, now resurrected, or a thing that had lived far too long under the bottom of Lake Tashi with its fire eating away at it from within--Abe didn't care much.
He pulled his sidearm, raised the pistol, and squeezed off three shots. The bullets took the thing dead center in the face, which tore with the dry, brittle texture of a pinata. The dragon didn't slow down.