Abe wondered which would arrive first.
"I do hope they'll be all right," Professor Bruttenholm said, his voice a low, thoughtful rasp.
"They'll be fine," Abe replied. "Hellboy's nothing if not durable. And he won't let any harm come to Anastasia."
The professor cast a brief glance at Abe. "It isn't physical harm that concerns me. It's this thing between them."
Abe blinked, about to speak, then he thought better of it. Instead, he just stood by Professor Bruttenholm, and the two of them watched as Hellboy, Anastasia, Koh, and Tenzin shepherded the frightened and lost away from the scene of the greatest horror of their lives. Hellboy and Anastasia walked close together, linked by some invisible bond.
One way or another, this whole thing was going to end eventually. They had no way of knowing how, or what would happen, but watching the two of them together, Abe understood the professor's concern. The Dragon King might be a threat to all of their lives, but there were graver dangers here than that.
Hellboy felt like a pack mule. He carried backpacks full of food and radio equipment slung over his shoulders, as well as a canvas tent rigged up like a gigantic quiver--but instead of arrows, it was full of shovels and surveying equipment. He gritted his teeth at the weight of the burden but didn't complain. These people had seen their friends burned alive. They were looking to him to protect them. Hellboy wasn't entirely certain he could do that, but he'd try his damnedest, and in the meantime, he had no intention of letting on that he had any doubts.
So he lugged all their crap up the mountain and didn't say a word.
Anastasia was ahead of him on the switchback trail that had been worn into the steep hillside through millennia of footsteps. More than likely, they'd used horses and yaks up here as well, but the archaeological team didn't have any beasts of burden to carry their supplies. They just had their own hands, and Hellboy.
Koh and Tenzin were at the lead of this sorry parade, the dozens of expedition members following them, with Stasia, Sarah Rhys-Howard, and Tim Meaney bringing up the rear. Hellboy came last. He didn't mind. He put the weight of his burden out of his mind just by watching Stasia. She spoke to Sarah from time to time, and the two women were alternately grim, then smiling. He wondered if they were talking about him.
High on the mountainside--it was only a hill in comparison to the white-capped mountain ridges in the distance all around the circumference of the plateau--they continued their climb. Many times they had to rest. Most of the expedition were in excellent physical condition from all the time spent working on digs and traveling, but even they were not prepared for a three-hour hike across such mountainous country. Hellboy didn't like the idea of delaying a moment longer than necessary. He could picture in his mind's eye the infernal horror that would ensue if the Dragon King were to surface again and catch them on the switchback trail, and had to force the image away.
They rested, but he didn't allow them to rest for very long.
Above, he could see the end of the trail, the crest of the hill. Anastasia saw him glancing upward and smiled, dropping back to walk just ahead of him.
"Hello, handsome. You need help with your kit, there?"
"Yeah. Thanks for the offer, now that we're nearly at the top."
Stasia grinned. "I was socializing."
"You two were like a couple of hens."
"Girl talk," she confirmed. The thin air did not seem to bother her at all. The sun shone on her hair, still bright copper red despite the passing years. With all the death and horror around them, she'd never looked more alive.
Hellboy forced himself to turn his gaze away from her.
"What do you think is going to happen now?" Stasia asked.
He looked up, confused for a moment about what she was asking. "We're going to get these people out of here."
With all that he was carrying, it would be too much work to shrug. Instead, he cocked his head. "We cork the hole the Dragon King came out of, or kill it, if that's what it comes to, and if we can."
Anastasia stumbled on the path but caught herself. She took a few more steps before glancing back again.
"What about Dwenjue? You think we're going to find anything?"
Hellboy paused, the exertion getting to him at last. The muscles in his legs ached. His tail dragged on the ground. His hooves kicked up dust, and sometimes the wind eddied it around so he couldn't help breathing it in. Beating up monsters was less work, any day.
"You know better than anyone. No telling what you're going to find when you start digging up old tombs. Story of my life."
As they reached the final switchback, the trail widened enough that they could walk side by side. They'd fallen behind quite a bit. From up above, Hellboy heard Frank Danovich calling down that they'd reached the monastery. The muscles in Hellboy's legs sagged a bit in relief. Almost there.
Stasia walked beside him in silence for several steps. It felt nice--it felt right--having her there, and he let himself enjoy her presence without questioning it or complicating it with too much thought, the way he'd been doing pretty much ever since they'd arrived. For the moment, it was just right.
"When I was a little girl--"
She shot him a comically angry look. "Shush."
"Just about to say, when I was a girl I thought so much of legend and mythology must have been real, somehow. That there was truth to it. I learned about God in school, and the set of legends that makes up modern religion, which tells us there's nothing to all those old stories. They're rubbish, we're told. But I liked the magic of legend, as a girl. I didn't want to believe in God if it meant I couldn't believe in Zeus and Odin and Kali.
"I grew out of it, of course. Became very serious, didn't I? Legends must have a source. That much, I knew. So I took it upon myself to discover the origins of legends. Archaeology was my only ambition. I wanted to know what the ancients dreamed about, what they fought about, what they feared. I wanted to know where the legends came from. There'd be weather patterns and great warriors and eclipses and cautionary tales at the genesis of legends, the template that creates a story that is altered by centuries of telling and retelling. The process fascinated me.
"But when I learned, at last, that the little girl I'd been wasn't entirely wrong--that some legends are not only stories, not variations, but history--everything changed for me. I love the idea of proving the zealots wrong. Not that God doesn't exist, but that their beliefs aren't the only ones with truth to them."
They reached the top of the trail. Back the way they'd come, the mountainside seemed incredibly steep. Hellboy took thin, reedy breaths. The thin air wouldn't bother him so much once he'd had a moment to rest. At the top of the climb, the members of the expedition were spreading out, dropping down to rest on their packs or their butts or their knees. Nearly all of them were gazing at the astonishing views all around them.
"So close to heaven, up here," Sarah Rhys-Howard said, catching her breath. The woman had to be hard and sharp in her work for the BPRD, but her eyes were wide with wonder and awe.
"The roof of the world," Anastasia replied.
Sarah nodded. Others began to wander the hilltop, getting a better look at the mountain ranges in the distance all around them. Only a handful had even taken note of the ancient monastery a hundred yards from where they stood. It was a squat brown building, well over a thousand years old. In the sun it was the pale color of an adobe hut, with blank, windowless walls that sloped upward from a foundation of wide, ancient brick.
"Not much to look at," Hellboy muttered.
Agent Rhys-Howard glanced at him. "It's shelter. For now, it will have to do."
Stasia slid her arm into Hellboy's smoothly, as if it was the most natural thing in the world. "Don't worry. If Lao is as good as his word, we'll have your man Redfield in his chopper and one of Lao's helicopters up here before the afternoon's half-over. Two trips, and we'll have everyone away from here."
Hellboy didn't reply. The idea of relying on Lao's word didn't sit well with him, but they had no choice.
Sarah and Meaney began to bark orders, prodding and guiding the archaeologists, engineers, and diggers as though they were lost sheep. Frank Danovich started to help out, and the people started moving. They trusted the engineer, who'd stuck around in spite of his broken arm, maybe because he sensed that. With all they'd seen, these people needed someone to trust.
Hellboy stepped away from Anastasia and set down the gear he'd been carrying. Hopefully, the expedition members would retrieve it once they decided where they wanted to set up camp inside the old monastery. If not, he'd carry it inside. For now, he rested, arching his back, stretching his legs and neck.
"You all right?" Stasia asked.
With a groan she set down her pack. "Just need a few minutes before we start grave-hunting."
"Me too." He looked at her, his arm still feeling her touch. "You were right, you know, about legends."
Stasia furrowed her brow. "How so?"
"Seems to me pretty much everything is true, in some fashion. Legends and myths and monsters...I run across the real thing all the time. Yeah. Everything is true. Which means it oughta be chaos, right? So how come it always seems to me like there's some kind of order to it all?"
She slid down to the ground and lay back against the pack like she was on her living room floor, watching TV. "Design, you mean? Some kind of divine influence?"
Hellboy cleared his throat--recognizing it as a trait he'd picked up from his father--and shook his head. "Didn't say anything about divine, did I? Yeah, maybe I think there's a design to it all, some kind of answer at the bottom of all these mysteries, if we could just dig down far enough."
Anastasia took off her Yankees cap and pulled out the elastic she'd used to hold her hair in a ponytail. She shook it out and stared at him, troubled.
"I wonder if you're right. If you are, I wonder if anyone could ever decipher that design, if it exists."
Again, Hellboy stretched. He watched Sarah and Meaney checking out the entrance to the monastery, weapons drawn. Meaney went in alone, leaving Sarah with the civilians. He'd be checking the place out for animals or people, though Koh said the place had been empty for centuries, and it looked it.
"Makes my head hurt to think about it," he said.
"You know, you're a legend yourself, now. Or you will be."
Meaney reappeared, and the evacuees started carrying their gear inside the monastery. Hellboy noticed that Koh and Tenzin hung around the entrance. That was good. It was best they not get too comfortable. Tenzin turned and watched him, waiting.
"I don't know. People know I exist. I was on the cover of Life way back when. I'm no mystery."
"To a lot of people you are. A big part of the world's population thinks you're a hoax or just a story."
"I'm the bogeyman," Hellboy said.
"Only to the bogeymen," Stasia said, propped on her elbows, her hair spilling around her. In another life, they would've been on a picnic or something. The way she lay there, he could almost imagine it--sandwiches and glasses of wine. Another life.
"So I'm a legend, huh? Guess that means someday, some archaeologist will come along and dig up my bones, try to make sense of what they find."
Stasia stood, brushing off the seat of her trousers, and picked up her pack. She slid it over her shoulder, and when she looked at him, there was a terrible melancholy in her eyes.
"No one will be around to dig you up. You'll probably outlive all of humanity, and archaeology. You'll be the only archaeologist left."
Hellboy stared at her, a terrible weight on his heart. "Wow. You sure know how to cheer a guy up."
She laughed softly. "It's a gift."
Together, they walked toward the monastery, where Tenzin and Koh waited. The time had come to discover whether Dwenjue was more than just a legend.
Clouds had begun to roll across the sky by midafternoon. At first they seemed harmless enough, but soon white wisps gave way to low-slung, ominous black clouds, and it seemed certain a storm would soon arrive. For the moment, however, there was only that electric frisson in the air that preceded a thunderstorm.
Professors Bruttenholm and Kyichu, Agent Pinborough, Mr. Lao, an archaeology student named Corriveau, and a digger called Gibson had created a makeshift camp a few hundred yards from the ravages of the original. The hillside to the north was not quite so steep, here, which provided the illusion that they might make some kind of escape if the Dragon King emerged and set after them.
Absurd, of course. The swiftness of the worm would not allow any escape. If it came after them, their choices were to fight or to die.
Abe Sapien glanced over his shoulder at the men who'd remained behind to watch for the return of the Dragon King. The glance was instinctive--he tried to remain aware of his surroundings at all times. The entire plateau seemed strangely silent to him. Even the wind seemed to have died. The loudest thing he could hear was the sound of his own breathing.
The surface of Lake Tashi reflected the dark, pregnant clouds, the water a depthless stone gray. It ought to have been silver or blue, but Abe imagined it turning red or orange, glowing with fire below. He was not prone to such fancy, but the lake seemed so placid and ordinary that its very calm disturbed him.
At the shore, he paused. Only up close could he see the bit of mist that had begun to rise from the water. His eyes narrowed. Not mist--steam. The heat emanating from the water felt oppressive. A few inches from shore, two dead fish floated and bobbed as the water gently lapped the edge of the lake.
Abe surveyed the surface of the lake again, searching for some ripple in the water that would indicate the presence of something large moving beneath the still water. Images filled his mind of the Dragon King surging upward to snatch him in its jaws, there on the shore. Abe felt grateful that Hellboy had insisted he wear his heavy belt, for there might be something in one of its pouches that could have saved him. The pistol never felt right to him, weighing him down, throwing off his balance--and it wouldn't do him a damn bit of good against the flying serpent they'd all seen during the night--but it might buy him a moment or two. Sometimes a moment was enough.