Hellboy tore his gaze away from the worm snaking across the sky and stared at her. "I don't think not finding the temple is your team's biggest concern right now."
Anastasia's eyes were wide. Hellboy saw reflected in them the yellow-and-red dragon swimming in the sky above them, trailing fire. But then among the shouts and cries from the camp and from the dig up on the ridge, he heard a kind of low whistle. It came from the Dragon King. When Hellboy looked up again, he saw that the fire had ceased to trail from its snout.
Scales and antlers reflecting moonlight, the Dragon King slithered across the sky, then descended upon the archaeological dig.
"Son of a bitch," Hellboy muttered.
He pulled his gun, wondering what good it would do, and started up the rocky slope toward the dig as fast as he could. Someone screamed. The dragon landed on the ridge, talons gripping mounds of excavated earth and fish tail whipping around. Someone shrieked, and Hellboy saw a man clutched in the dragon's rear talon. The shriek cut off as the digger was crushed, bones snapping, limbs splayed from the dragon's grip.
The worm tossed its body around madly, tearing down scaffolding and collapsing the mounds that had been unearthed onto the parts of the city that had been revealed. Several people leaped off of the top of the ridge and struck hard, knees bending, tumbling end over end into a painful roll.
Hellboy was almost at the top. He paused and leveled his hand cannon.
The Dragon King slithered into the air, darting almost too fast for him to follow with the barrel of his gun. He squeezed off a round and it boomed across the sky, but the way the worm twisted, the bullet didn't even come close.
It seemed about to head north, toward distant mountain peaks, but then abruptly coiled in upon itself. A yellow-and-red blur, it snaked down from the sky toward the camp. Hellboy froze a single instant, then he ran, hooves pounding as he hurled himself down the slope, shouting warnings in words he didn't even hear coming out of his mouth. The gun dangled uselessly in his hand.
The dragon opened its maw, and the night lit up with fire once again. The tents set up by the archaeologists and by his fellow BPRD agents caught fire, and the blaze roared, licking at the night sky. Black smoke raced up from the camp. Holes circled in burning black widened as the fire consumed two out of every three tents.
Hellboy gritted his teeth and glared at the dragon as it slunk away across the sky. He did not call out his father's name, or Abe's, or anyone's. He simply ran toward the burning tents. As he reached the camp he saw a woman on fire staggering out of a tent. Hellboy pulled her to the ground and started to roll her roughly on the dirt, clawing up handfuls of soil to throw onto her. He doused the flames. She screamed in terror, though she was not badly injured. As he rose, he whipped aside the flap of the burning tent, checked to make sure no one else was inside, then he tore it down. Safer if it burns on the ground.
But he didn't slow down.
People shouted all around him. He saw a burning man run toward the lake, his hair ablaze.
Two of the BPRD tents were on fire.
Silhouetted against them, Hellboy saw Abe Sapien standing with his legs apart, holding the slender, white-haired figure of Professor Bruttenholm in his arms.
He heard Anastasia calling out to others somewhere nearby. She was seeing to her people, calming them down, getting them organized and seeing who was injured. Hellboy felt a vague, distant relief. With Anastasia there, he didn't need to worry about saving everyone. All he needed to worry about was his father.
"He'll be all right," Abe said.
Hellboy took the old man from Abe and carried him away from the burning tents, away from the camp, and set him down at the bottom of the slope that led up toward the dig. His father murmured something, and his eyelids fluttered. Parts of his white goatee had been singed. A portion of his jacket had been burned along one arm, but Hellboy put off trying to remove it. The flesh would be burned under there, and he didn't want to look just yet.
"What happened to him?"
"I went into the tent to get him. Pinborough kept the flap clear, but when we came out, the professor was on fire. He kept swiping at his eyes, the smoke stung him, I think. When he dropped to try to put the flames out, he simply passed out. He may have struck his head."
But Professor Bruttenholm was already coming around. He blinked several times, opening his eyes wide as though clearing his vision. For a moment he seemed disoriented, but then dark understanding etched a grim expression upon his face.
"What happened to you?" Hellboy asked.
"Too much smoke and excitement, I suppose," the professor replied, touching the side of his head. "Got a bit of a bump, that's all. I'll be fine. Look to the rest of them, now. There'll be a lot of wounded. And where's the damned dragon gotten off to?"
Hellboy stared at his father, then looked up into the sky.
The dragon had headed north, toward Nakchu village. It crossed his mind that he'd promised that he would keep the village safe after stopping them from sacrificing Kora. So much for that.
"North," was all he said.
"Damn it," Professor Bruttenholm whispered. He tried to rise, but swayed and lay back down. "Help the rest. I'll be all right here."
The old man fixed him with a determined stare. Hellboy nodded and pulled Abe away from him. "Where's Pinborough, now? Where are the others?"
Abe gestured toward the burning tents. "Neil went to help them. Sarah and Meaney were up at the dig."
Hellboy felt a cold knot in his gut. "Take care of the professor. Work with Stasia and Pinborough to coordinate down here. I'm going up on the ridge. Anyone sees the dragon, they should start screaming."
A visible shudder went through Abe. "Somehow, I don't think that's going to be a problem."
Koh crouched just inside the mouth of the tunnel that led into the burial cavern of his people. Twenty feet away his father's body lay burning, flesh flaking like black parchment, charred bones still on fire. Koh wept tears of fire. Behind him, deeper inside the tunnel, dozens of men, women, and children of his village huddled together in grief and fear.
"Is it still out there?" asked a little girl, a daughter of his cousin.
He could only nod, staring at the figure slithering across the sky in flames. It seemed as though the heavens themselves were burning. Nakchu village crackled and raged with fire, all of the beautifully constructed wooden huts swallowed by orange flame and black smoke. The winding river disappeared into the rolling smoke. He could see only the arch of the bridge, on fire.
In the sky, the Dragon King seemed to grow bored with them. It slid lower and glided, twisting, above the village in search of anything that might be moving--might still be alive. And then it whipped up toward the heavens again and turned southward, slithering away over the hills, toward the lake.
But Koh knew that the Dragon King would return. Its reign had begun anew.
All of the archaeologists' work had been destroyed. Almost nothing remained undamaged. Areas that had been cordoned off and sectioned with rope and stakes had been churned up by a combination of the earth tremor and the Dragon King's arrival. Mounds of earth had been spread back across excavations as though no digging had ever occurred. The hole in front of the preparatory room had collapsed in upon itself or been torn asunder by one of the dragon's talons. The steep hillside above the entrance had caved in, sealing the chamber with the corpses of Sima, Rafe Mattei, and Dr. Conrad inside.
Two more people were dead--a digger named Kufs and one of Danovich's men--and the archaeologist that Professor Bruttenholm had befriended, Dorian Trent, was missing. It seemed obvious Trent had been buried in one of the cave-ins, but Hellboy couldn't be sure.
Hellboy had sent Sarah Rhys-Howard, the BPRD medic, down to help at the camp. She was rounding up supplies and helping Ellie Morris treat the burns of those at the camp. They were priority one right now. That, and getting Kora Kyichu away from this place, just in case there was some way for the Dragon King to sense her--to sense that she had been intended as a sacrifice to him.
Danovich stood beside Hellboy, his arm in a sling made of torn strips of his shirt. The engineer's arm was broken, but the man was tough as nails. He and Hellboy had been checking on everyone else for nearly half an hour. Hellboy was amazed that the death toll had not been worse. There were injuries, people with scrapes and bumps from tumbling rocks and earth, but mostly they were not serious.
"Time to leave all this," Hellboy said.
"What about Trent?" Danovich asked.
"Wherever he is, he's not going anywhere."
The engineer flinched. "That's cold."
Hellboy shrugged. "He may still be alive down there. But that dragon could come back anytime. We've got to get the injured treated and find some kind of shelter. Redfield and Meaney won't be back with the chopper--and our friendly Mr. Lao--until morning at least, and trying to evacuate people that way will take forever. We need to figure out how to fight this thing."
"Fight it? Fight the damn Dragon King?"
"You got a better idea?"
They started down from the ridge. Some of the tent fires had been put out, salvaging part of the camp, but many of them had burned to the ground. In places, all that remained of tents were the bottom edges, strung from one stake to the next, still burning. In the moonlight, the flickering of those flames seemed unearthly. To Hellboy, it looked like a battlefield, and they were the army that had lost the war.
The Dragon King, he could handle. The trouble was going to be keeping the big worm from killing anyone else in the meantime.
The sky filled with a shushing noise. Hellboy and Danovich exchanged a glance. Then Hellboy left the engineer behind, running down the slope toward what remained of the camp.
"Cover!" he bellowed. "Everyone take cover! Don't let it see that the job isn't done!"
As they scattered, some into the tents that remained intact and others behind rocky outcroppings or beneath equipment, trunks, and blankets that had been salvaged, Hellboy stopped to stare upward. The red stripe of the dragon's belly coiled across the sky above him, silhouetted against the yellow flesh of its body. He thought of the dead and the injured and of the way his father had felt dead when Hellboy took the old man into his arms.
He drew his gun, raised it high, and pulled the trigger once, twice, a third time. Hellboy could have sworn at least two of the bullets punched into the Dragon King's belly, but the worm was so swift that there was no time for a fourth shot. It swept across the sky above the ruined camp and hit the surface of the lake. The water roiled around it, and the Dragon King dived, vanishing beneath the surface. Small waves rolled out from the place it had gone under, but the dragon was gone.
Forty feet from where he stood, Abe Sapien knelt beside the expedition's M.D., Ellie Morris, while the two of them helped treat a burn victim who lay on a thick blanket.
"Abe!" Hellboy shouted, running toward him even as he holstered his gun.
The amphibious man stood and turned toward him.
"Go! Get in the water, now!" Hellboy barked at him. "You've gotta go after the dragon."
The fin ridges on Abe's neck rippled as though in a strong breeze, and he regarded Hellboy oddly. "Did you suffer some kind of head trauma?"
Hellboy skidded to a halt in front of him, staring down intently. "I'm not screwing around, Abe. Go after it. Now. I don't want you to fight it. Just track it. Figure out where its lair is down there. Without that, all we're doing is sitting here waiting for it to come back and kill us."
Abe cursed at the logic, turned, and ran swiftly but awkwardly toward the water.
The water did not soothe him. Abe Sapien knifed beneath the roiling surface of the lake, the water unnaturally hot. It slid across his flesh with the clinging film of mercury. Given a choice, he would have swum for shore, but he had a job to do.
He kicked and swam with all of his strength, propelling himself as swiftly as he could in pursuit of the great serpent. In the darkness of the deep lake bottom, he could barely make out the tail of the dragon whipping back and forth ahead of him. Its yellow scales gleamed only a little this far under water, at night. Instead, Abe relied upon the displacement of water, the disturbance of the Dragon King's passing, and the heat it generated to guide him.
The dragon sped up, swimming so powerfully that Abe felt himself caught and pulled along in its wake. He had to fight to keep from tumbling end over end in the water, and the Dragon King pulled ahead.
Alarm rippled through Abe. If he lost the thing's trail long enough for it to enter its lair unseen, his pursuit would be for nothing. Desperation raced in his blood, adrenaline surging. He gritted his teeth and swam harder, gills pulsing.
In his mind's eye he saw images of the Dragon King bursting from the lake in a spray of fire and water, saw the tents burning and the fear in Professor Bruttenholm's eyes as the old man had choked on the smoke and stared at the fire spreading along his arm.
A flash of yellow flickered through the water ahead--too close--and Abe drew back quickly. Somehow he'd caught up, and the terror of the Dragon King's nearness struck him. Catching up to the dragon was the very last thing he wanted to do.
What are you thinking, coming down here after it?
But even as the thought struck him, he pushed it away--pushed away all fear and hesitation, and the knowledge that this flying, burning engine of destruction was way out of his league, and maybe out of Hellboy's as well. They needed way more firepower than they'd brought up here, to the top of the world.
And what about when they got that firepower? The only way to destroy the Dragon King or seal him under the lake again was to figure out where he'd been sleeping and how he got out.
He darted through the water again, redoubling his efforts. The heat and wake of the dragon's passing was simple enough to follow, but it would fade if he slowed down any further. Abe's heart thundered with the effort as he struggled to catch up with the Dragon King. Even as he did, he scanned the dark smoothness of the lake bottom, the soft, shifting, almost featureless terrain. There was so little plant life that the fish population of the lake was also quite small. But he had searched the lake twice already, by night, then by day, and he had seen nowhere that the dragon could have hibernated.