A kind of sadness touched her features. "No. You look well. Healthy. Strong."
The strength in her faltered, and she stepped nearer, took his hands in hers, not differentiating between his ordinary, flesh-and-blood hand and the massive, destructive fist of his right.
"Thank you for coming. You have no idea how relieved I am that you're here."
Hellboy's voice dropped nearly to a whisper. "No sign of the girl?"
"Nothing. But there have been developments. Last night, our saboteur returned. I shot him, but he fell in the lake. I'm certain he swam off, despite the bullet wound."
"You got a good look at him?"
She nodded. "It's just as was in the report. Subhuman. I've reason to believe he might be a shape-shifter. And I may know where he is. If he is the one who took Kora--"
Hellboy had been unable to focus on anything but her hands in his. He broke that contact and took a step back, feeling the anxious attention of his father's eyes on his back without even turning around.
"Whatever's going on here, we'll work it out as fast as we can. Professor Bruttenholm is leading our investigation, but I'm sure the first thing he'll want is a meeting where you can lay out the background of the dig and what you've uncovered thus far. If your saboteur fell in the lake, then he may have come from there in the first place. Abe will probably recon the lake bottom tonight. And we'll take it from there."
He looked around to make sure none of the other archaeologists were close enough to hear him. The last thing he wanted was for Professor Kyichu to eavesdrop on this conversation.
"If this girl is still alive, we'll get her back, Stasia."
Ever since they'd landed, he'd had an ominous feeling, like something wasn't right. He wasn't the type to put much stock in precognition--not in people like himself who'd never shown any aptitude for it--but there was a kind of menace on the shore of the lake. When Anastasia smiled again, so full of her fondness for him, he wondered if the danger he sensed had anything to do with monsters, or if it was all about the ghosts of the past.
Abe Sapien slipped beneath the surface of Lake Tashi with a shudder of pleasure. The water caressed him, invigorated him. Though he had slept a great deal during their long journey from the United States, a shroud of sluggishness had blanketed him since he had stepped off the helicopter. When Professor Bruttenholm had asked him to recon the lake while the others prepared a debriefing with the archaeological team, he'd felt absurdly grateful.
Not that he expected to find much. The lake was vast, and the moonlight did little more than give a glow to the first few feet of its depths. His eyes were keen, at night or underwater, but when he was dealing with both darkness and depth, even his vision had limits. The only way he was going to find the remains of a little girl in the lake was by accidentally swimming into her floating corpse.
Another shudder went through him. What's wrong with you? Abe thought to himself. He wasn't normally so callous.
And yet, it was the truth. If the girl had drowned or been murdered in the lake, there was little chance he would find her body at night. Even in the daytime, it would be a huge job for him to search the entirety of Lake Tashi. Likewise, he calculated slim odds of finding any trace of the saboteur that Dr. Bransfield--Anastasia--had mentioned.
Professor Bruttenholm knew that. Abe knew that he'd been asked to do the recon for other reasons--first, to make sure the people they'd been sent to help felt that help had arrived, and that the BPRD was not going to waste any time getting started, and second, because they had no idea what was truly going on here. Hellboy was the closest friend Abe had ever had, but that didn't make him the best field leader. If they knew what they were up against, or knew where to look for the threat, no one could close a case faster than Hellboy. March in, get his butt kicked, then dish it out.
But this was going to be a real investigation. There was reason to believe something supernatural was going on here, but beyond that, they had to start from scratch. While Abe swam the lake, Hellboy and Bruttenholm would be touring the dig site and the expedition camp.
Abe knew the purpose of this swim.
It could wait.
He kicked and thrust his arms forward, pulling himself deeper into the darkness of the lake. Total immersion meant utter bliss. He swam for a few minutes, simply allowing the pleasure of the water to seep into him, acclimating himself to the temperature, the saline level, and the fish that darted up to him to gaze curiously for a moment before streaking away.
His mind drifted, and he found himself thinking about Hellboy and Anastasia. Professor Bruttenholm's concern for his foster son was badly concealed. Abe had met Anastasia several times--at the beginning or end of some expedition on which Hellboy was accompanying her--and he'd always found her to be intelligent and charming. But once their relationship had ended, he had also been there to see the way it had ravaged Hellboy's spirit. The breakup had been more his idea than Anastasia's, but the separation from her had taken a terrible toll. Never had he spoken a word against her, but Abe had seen between his words. Hellboy had brought up the troubles they faced, the pressure of their public image, and Anastasia had agreed that it was best to end things. It was clear he had wanted her to argue, to fight for what they had, but she had not.
Hellboy had done his best to put it all behind him, no matter how much he missed her. Then, five years ago, he'd seen her again, and the numb distance between them had been erased. When he'd come back from Egypt after that case, he'd been unusually quiet, even for Hellboy.
Having Anastasia as a friend ought to have been a pleasure, at least as far as Abe was concerned. They had loved one another--maybe still did--but decided they were better off apart than together. Yet the bond between them and their abiding fondness for one another remained. It would, of course, be bittersweet, but he had read a thousand novels in which similar relationships existed.
Now, though, he had seen them together. Professor Bruttenholm had watched them warily as they greeted one another, and Abe had watched as well--had found it impossible not to watch. It was all still there, between them. Hellboy pretended he didn't still feel what he once felt, and Anastasia pretended not to notice. Abe had spent months floating in a tank studying the people around him--even as they were studying him--and the dynamics between Hellboy and Anastasia were impossible to miss.
If Professor Bruttenholm disliked Dr. Bransfield, he could hardly be blamed. She would likely be a source of both happiness and sorrow to Hellboy as long as he lived; after her death, his memory of her would linger. It was natural for a father to wish his son's sadness away.
What the professor did not see was that Anastasia carried a similar melancholy with her in Hellboy's presence. She was as helpless as Hellboy to prevent it. Circumstances had brought them together again. Professor Bruttenholm might blame Anastasia for requesting the BPRD's involvement in the first place--she would know that Hellboy would come, no questions asked--but what else could she have done, given the situation?
Abe swam. The lake surrounded him with solaceand pleasure. Yet he could not swim far enough to escape the inevitable sadness of this venture. Hellboy, Anastasia, and Professor Bruttenholm would all come away from this case with heavy hearts. There was no avoiding that.
In the meantime, all they could do was their best. The missing girl, Kora Kyichu, would be their focus, as it should be. And the desperation of searching for her, wondering if she was alive, would protect them all for a while.
Reluctantly, Abe focused on the task at hand. He'd have a better look in the morning, but for now he swam along the lake bottom, searching for some kind of ancient ruin or even a lair where a mystical creature might be hiding. Nothing was beyond imagining. They knew so little about what was going on here that he had to consider every possibility.
From what he could see in the dark, however, there was nothing unusual at the bottom of the lake. The only oddity he discovered was a strange featurelessness. There was little vegetation down here, and no rough terrain at all. The bottom consisted of soil so loose that when he paused a moment in his swimming and tried to put his feet down, he sank halfway to his knees.
The soil was warm. He shook himself loose, worried that it might be like underwater quicksand, and he'd find it difficult to free himself. But he slid out as easily as he'd sunk in, and began to swim for the surface. In the morning, he would return to the lake bottom, but he already knew he would find nothing but sand. If there was anything to find, it would have buried itself in that shifting silt by now.
Only when he had nearly reached the surface, not far from shore, did it occur to him that the soil had been too warm. He paused, floating for a moment. It wasn't just the soil. Given the time of year and the chilly air up in these mountains, the lake ought to have been fairly cold. Near the surface, it was, but it should have gotten colder the deeper he swam.
Instead, the depths of the lake were warm.
Hellboy took an instant dislike to Mark Conrad. When Anastasia had met him, getting off the helicopter, he'd been too distracted by her to pay much attention to the people with her. Now, though, Conrad had an arrogant-rich-boy thing going on that made Hellboy want to hammer him into the ground with his fist. Dr. Conrad had a three-day stubble of beard that seemed by choice of style, and wavy blond hair that hung to his shoulders. He was fit, but the red in his eyes said he normally drank too much. And he occupied the space within Anastasia's tent as though they were serfs and he their feudal master.
Rich, uptight, English prig. It didn't help that he was handsome, and aware of it, and that he had a kind of proprietary air about him when standing beside Anastasia. From the way Conrad kept looking back and forth between Hellboy and Anastasia, it was obvious he was aware of their past relationship. It was also pretty clear how he felt about it. His nostrils flared with barely disguised disgust whenever he had to address Hellboy directly.
Which meant Hellboy tried to force Conrad to address him directly as often as possible, just to bother the asshat, and to amplify his own desire to pummel him.
They had all gathered in Anastasia's tent for the debriefing--Hellboy, Professor Bruttenholm, Dr. Conrad, Anastasia herself, and the man from Beijing, whose name was Lao. No first or last. Just Lao, like Madonna or Cher. As annoying as his superior smugness was, it didn't make Hellboy want to break him in two the way Conrad's attitude did. Maybe that was because Lao hadn't so much as flinched upon meeting him, had barely spoken to him or looked at him. Lao wasn't fazed by the presence of an enormous guy with sawed-off horns, bloodred skin, and a tail.
Hellboy liked that. Flunky for insidious secret government masters he might be, but Lao didn't look down his nose at the red guy.
The tent was huge. Given that it doubled as the command center for the dig, it had to be. Still, Hellboy had to crouch a little to stand inside, and he didn't like that. It made him feel foolish, so he tried not to meet Anastasia's gaze when he could avoid it.
Professor Kyichu hadn't been brought into the briefing, and that was good. Hellboy had felt the urge to say something to the man, to offer him some comfort or reassurance, but he'd been unable to come up with anything that didn't sound hollow or insincere. Better to have the man elsewhere, at least for the moment.
Conrad had finished giving them all a rundown of the discovery of the dig site and their operations up until now. Anastasia had asked him to do so, ceding the floor to him, and he took it as though he was entitled. Now that he was done, though, he looked up at Professor Bruttenholm, as if they were equals, and nobody else was in the tent.
"It's late, Professor. What can we tell you that isn't in the documents you received?" Conrad asked.
Professor Bruttenholm nodded, clearing his throat. "Thank you, Dr. Conrad. Perhaps you and Dr. Bransfield would be so kind as to--"
"Shouldn't we wait for Abe?" Hellboy interrupted.
His father raised a bushy white eyebrow. "Abe will be along shortly. Dr. Conrad is correct. It's quite late. Still, we ought to learn what we can."
Conrad started to speak again, but Anastasia cut him off, both talking over him and stepping closer to the center of the tent.
"What can we tell you, Professor? Where should we start?"
Professor Bruttenholm cleared his throat. "Perhaps you could begin by telling me what you expected to find when you began the excavation."
Conrad smiled thinly. "Surely, that's in the file, sir. Our mandate was to locate and restore the fortress city of an ancient warlord known in those times as the Dragon King, due to his symbolic use of the Asian dragon motif in his city and the temple he built to the gods. Dozens of references in scrolls from those times refer to the deadly power of the Dragon King, raining fire and destruction down upon his enemies and all of the villages in the area, whom he forced to worship him."
Hellboy threw up his hands. "Yeah, yeah, pal, we read all that. But that's just a version of the story. You found this Dragon King Temple, and there's something about local legends of real dragons and the lake. Now you've got monsters rousting your camp, causing trouble, maybe taking this little girl away, trying to stop you. Gotta tell you, everyone's worried about the girl, Kora, but the way the report read, nobody seemed all that stunned about subhuman creatures sabotaging your dig."
Professor Bruttenholm nodded and gestured his agreement with a flourish of his right hand. "Precisely. Which prompts the question, why is no one surprised by this? What were you really looking for?"
Conrad sneered. "You people are off your nut. Our intent here isn't at issue. Can you help us, or not?"
But Professor Bruttenholm wasn't looking at him anymore. He was staring at Anastasia, who glanced reluctantly at Conrad before nodding. "You're right, of course, Professor."
Hellboy loved the look of confusion and consternation on Conrad's face. He wasn't used to being out of the loop, obviously. Cut off his self-image at the knees.
"Talk, Stasia. Let's not waste any more time," Hellboy said.
She nodded, and when she spoke, her gaze shifted between him and Professor Bruttenholm, ignoring Dr. Conrad and Lao entirely. Hellboy thought it was interesting that Lao seemed to be able to disappear in a room so that nobody noticed him at all.