Not for much longer.
His chest started to burn. Exercise was his friend and all, but this was ridiculous. His hooves pounded the earth, and he was practically in free fall, whipping down the mountainside, dodging through trees. He holstered the pistol on the run and stumbled over a rock, nearly falling. The heads started to shriek, calling to one another again, and he thought he knew what that meant. It was a good sign.
Until they started suicide runs. One of them slammed into him, fangs tearing the sleeve of his jacket before it fell, and he trampled it underhoof. Another came at his face, and Hellboy raised his ancient, massive left hand and punched it without slowing down. It spattered his face and body like a bug on a windshield, that skunk stink all over him now.
"Oh, great. That's just freakin' great," he shouted at the forest around him.
One got its fangs into his right thigh before he swatted it away. Two more were trampled. They were frenzied, now, as they tried to stop him from reaching open ground.
Then it was too late. Hellboy burst from the woods with the Chonchonyi darting all around him, their dark wings slapping the air, jaws gnashing, shrieking in fury and alarm.
The village lay ahead, a pretty little settlement on a lake. But the dwellings were quiet, empty. The villagers had other plans today. As Hellboy tromped into the clearing with the leeches flying around him, chanting filled the air. The words were an ancient spell, passed down through generations of Araucanians. Hellboy kept running until he'd passed the Seal of Solomon that he and the village elders had drawn in the dirt in the middle of the clearing.
The chant grew louder. The creatures began to falter in the air, flying in strange, wandering patterns, disoriented by the spell; then one by one they flew shakily toward the Seal of Solomon. Several fell to the ground and had to flop there, dragging themselves toward the Seal, scuttling like crabs on the ridges of their wings.
The villagers looked on in amazement and horror. One little boy screamed, and his mother covered his eyes. Several other children turned and fled toward their homes. But most of the people remained, mesmerized by the sight, chanting and watching as the malevolent, bloodthirsty things that had preyed upon them throughout the ages gathered in the air and on the ground above the Seal of Solomon.
Hellboy looked around for the rest of his team, two professorial types and a pretty, red-haired young woman with her arms crossed and a look of defiance etched upon her features.
"Liz," he said, "come on. It's time."
"You know I can't do this," she said, with an insouciant toss of her hair, glaring at him as though damning him for his expectations. "Did you not notice the village, all the people, and oh, maybe the nice, flammable forest?"
Hellboy stretched, bones popping. His shins ached. He yawned as he plucked leaves from his jacket.
"You're fine," he replied. "We're in a clearing, hundreds of yards from the village. All the people are behind you, out of the way. Scorched earth policy, Liz. You don't have to control the power of the burn, only direction."
Something in her face gave way, and he saw in her again the little girl she'd been when they'd first met--the little firestarter who'd accidentally roasted her family and neighbors alive. The tough facade was gone, and all that remained was the fear of the fire inside her. It'd been years since the last time the flames had gotten the better of her, burning uncontrollably, but she could never forget. The fire was the enemy, even when she needed it--especially when she needed it. He hoped she'd make peace with it someday, but for now--"Liz..."
She tucked a lock of red hair behind her ear and peered past him at the abhorrent, absurd creatures flying in drunken circles above the Seal of Solomon. More of them were dragging themselves on the ground; they would remain disoriented as long as the villagers continued their chant.
Gnawing her upper lip, Liz raised her right hand. White flames danced on her fingers and began to spread to her wrist. The fire blossomed from her hand, a churning inferno that rolled across the ground and engulfed the creatures.
The chant grew louder, so that the villagers could hear one another over the roar of the fire and the screaming of the burning demons. Liz closed her hand, snuffing the flames on her fingers and palm, then put her hands over her ears. Hellboy turned her around and led her back toward the village, wishing he had never come to Chile.
"Flying heads," he muttered. "My life's a circus."
Professor Trevor Bruttenholm sat at his enormous cherrywood desk among shelves upon shelves of scrolls and manuscripts and leather-bound tomes of arcane lore. Most of the books ought to have been stored in the archives of the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense, along with the artifacts and magical talismans that lay on his desk and on the mantel of the fireplace, gathering dust. But Bruttenholm had been one of the founders of the BPRD, and spent fifteen years as its director. Even the parade of bureaucrats who had headed up the Bureau after he'd resigned that position understood that the man deserved a bit of indulgence.
No one disturbed Professor Bruttenholm's office. Every artifact and manuscript existed as a mystery he had yet to solve. Some of them might take him years to decipher, and others he might never figure out, but he never stopped. Each of these he considered open cases, and they never remained far out of his mind, or out of reach.
This morning he sat in the high-backed chair behind his desk and smoked his pipe, the air redolent with the sweetness of his Turkish tobacco, and leafed through the pages of a German text he'd had in his possession since the Second World War. He easily translated the words, the strange prophecies, within, but had never been able to make sense of them. In almost fifty years, not a single prophecy from the book had come true. Every other agent or researcher in the employ of the BPRD he'd consulted over the years had presumed it must be a fraud, but something about it troubled him.
Trevor Bruttenholm trusted his instincts. Everything in his office held secrets yet to be unlocked. That was why he had given up the position of director so many years ago, and why, though he was an old man, he still functioned as a field agent for the BPRD. Life was brief, and he hadn't time to waste on the sort of politics that the director's job required.
Dust motes swirled in the morning light that crept across the room through the trio of tall windows on the eastern wall. Bruttenholm had never been a sound sleeper, and age had only exacerbated the problem. This morning he had come into his office just after four o'clock, long before dawn. Such hours were not uncommon for him. He rubbed his eyes and went back to deciphering German prophecies. The lamp on his desk was still on, but the morning sunlight had faded it to a dull glow.
There was a knock at the door, and Bruttenholm raised a bushy, white eyebrow as he glanced up. He slipped a finger into the book to mark his page.
The door opened immediately, and Dr. Tom Manning took a single step into the room, one hand on the knob. In his other hand, the BPRD's Director of Field Operations held a case folder. The man's pallid complexion seemed almost jaundiced in the morning light.
"Why is it always so dark in here?" Dr. Manning asked.
"I have a predilection for dark wood and heavy drapes, Tom. You know this. It's very British of me, or so you've told me a dozen times."
Manning actually smiled, not a common occurrence. His hair was thinning, and the twenty-five extra pounds he carried around depressed him almost as much as the bureaucracy he had to deal with every day. One day, he would make a fine old curmudgeon, if a heart attack did not take him first. In truth, Bruttenholm thought that one day, Tom Manning would make a fine director for the Bureau--far better than the politicians who had served in the role for so long. He had a "buck stops here" mentality that was more than necessary for such a job, and for the Field Operations post he currently held.
"Good morning, Professor," Dr. Manning said, beginning again.
"And to you, Tom. To what do I owe the pleasure?"
"I have a field assignment that I'd like you to take the lead on."
Bruttenholm raised both eyebrows this time. The BPRD usually tried to discourage his work as a field agent these days, putting his value as a researcher and occult expert far above his value as an active agent.
Dr. Manning stepped farther into the room and handed him the case file. "We've received a joint request from the British and Chinese governments to conduct an investigation in Tibet. The British ambassador describes the situation as 'urgent.'"
"And the Chinese?" Bruttenholm asked, taking the proffered file.
"You know the Chinese government," Manning replied. "They've signed off on the formal request, but they act as though they're doing it as a favor to London. They'd never admit they need our help."
"Why is London involved at all?"
Manning sighed impatiently. "It's all in the file, Professor. Hellboy and Agent Sherman are due back in a few hours. We'll have a briefing this afternoon, and you'll leave tomorrow."
Curious, Bruttenholm opened the folder and glanced at the first couple of pages, smoothing his white goatee. Dr. Manning hesitated a moment, then turned to go.
"Tom," the professor said. "Stop."
Manning froze in the doorway and turned back to face him with obvious reluctance.
Bruttenholm stared at him. Dr. Manning might have been the Director of Field Operations and, thus, his superior, but they both knew the BPRD would not have existed without Bruttenholm and Hellboy, whom he called his son. Most of the time, the professor allowed Manning the illusion that he was in charge.
"It's an archaeological dig," Bruttenholm said.
"Run by the British Museum."
"And they've specifically requested Hellboy?"
Dr. Manning shrugged. "You know how highly the Brits regard him, particularly since the Egyptian incident in '86."
"One Brit in particular."
"As it may be," Manning replied, opening his hands in surrender. "Trevor, they think they've unearthed part of something called the Dragon King's temple, which is associated with just the sort of legend that has a tendency to cause trouble when the past is disturbed. There's been sabotage at the dig, and sightings of individuals who might not be entirely human. There's also the matter of a missing child, the eleven-year-old daughter of one of the archaeologists."
Bruttenholm shook his head. "We don't know there's anything supernatural involved here at all."
Manning crossed his arms. "What do your instincts tell you?"
The professor sighed. He ran his hands through his unruly white hair, understanding, now, why Tom Manning had wanted him to lead the investigation. He wanted to make sure that whoever was doing the thinking for the BPRD in the field had his head in the game.
"You already know what the project's leader thinks," Manning said. "She's had more than a few brushes with our sort of business over the years, as you know. Her instincts have always proved reliable."
Professor Bruttenholm returned his attention to the contents of the folder. It was precisely the sort of incident that the BPRD had been created to investigate. Research and defense were the stated purposes of the group, but the defense element often meant attempting to prevent supernatural forces from wreaking havoc upon the world. Such prevention did not need to be global to warrant their attention. When evil made its presence known, they had a duty to extinguish it. And, in this case, with a formal request from the British and Chinese governments, they couldn't refuse without creating a diplomatic incident. No matter what Bruttenholm would have preferred.
"It isn't Dr. Bransfield's instincts that concern me," the professor said, without looking up. "Hellboy claims his feelings for her are a thing of the past, but you saw how distracted he was the last time their paths crossed. For weeks, his mind was somewhere else. It isn't healthy for him."
Manning cocked his head. "It happens to the best of us, Professor."
Bruttenholm blinked and looked up, wondering if Manning understood what he'd just said. Love. The frailty of the heart. It happened to everyone at some point in their lives, if they were fortunate. It was human. If the bittersweet distraction of a former love was part of being human, what right did he have to prevent it?
Again, he stroked his goatee, staring at Anastasia Bransfield's signature on the documents in the folder. He was an old man who only wanted to save his son from heartache, as any parent would. But Hellboy hadn't been a child for a very long time. And Bruttenholm knew that his son would want to see Anastasia, now that the invitation had come.
But the professor didn't have to like it.
He'd set his pipe down, and now he picked it up again. He relit the pipe and drew in a lungful of sweet smoke.
"You know, you're really not supposed to smoke in here," Manning said.
Bruttenholm tapped the folder on his desk. "Tibet it is, then."
Hellboy always liked coming home to the BPRD headquarters. It was tucked away on a hillside in Fairfield, Connecticut, up a wooded, winding drive. The building was all glass and concrete, and yet its designer had created it to become a part of the landscape. It was built partially into the hillside and surrounded with trees and shrubs that seemed to bring life to the place. Hellboy had lived in far less pleasant circumstances. Despite the politicians and scientists who passed through its corridors every day, it still felt like home to him most of the time.
Of course, he knew that was due in large part to the fact that Liz Sherman and Abe Sapien, his closest friends, lived there. Their world existed, like his, within that glass-and-concrete building. And, of course, the man Hellboy thought of as his father was there as well.
On a day like today, when he was numbed by the journey from Chile to the United States, BPRD headquarters seemed particularly welcoming. He sat in the backseat of a truck and looked out the window as they emerged from the trees and the building came in sight. The engine rumbled as the vehicle labored up the hill. Liz had balled up her jacket and lay sleeping with her head upon his lap. The woman could sleep anywhere, especially if she'd recently summoned fire.