They'd spent much of the winter at the Chateau de Chaumont at Loir-et-Cher, France. The castle had once been owned by Catherine de Medici, who had entertained sorcerers and astrologers there, among them the great Nostradamus. In 1613, archaeologists had discovered the skeleton of a giant buried beneath the castle, a man twenty-five and a half feet in height. Believers claimed the creature was one of the nephilim, gigantic creations that God had put on the Earth before he'd thought up mankind. Others said it was a hoax or an anomaly.
When restoration at the castle had revealed a previously undiscovered chamber--in which the stones of the floor had partially collapsed--it had at first been only an interesting aside. But when several of the stones had been removed and a gigantic human skull discovered under the floor, work had been suspended while archaeologists were summoned. Eventually, Anastasia had received a call asking her to join the dig. From the moment she began to tell him of the seventeenth-century discovery, Hellboy had understood why they wanted her. There wasn't an archaeologist in the world with more experience dealing with unexplained phenomena.
The skeletal remains of three giants had been discovered beneath the secret chamber under the Chateau de Chaumont. The shortest had stood at least twenty-seven feet in height during life.
"Interesting," Hellboy said, as they strode up to the entrance together, and stepped through the doors.
"What is?" Stasia asked.
Hellboy gave a small shrug. "The Louvre's got its rep as one of the most sophisticated places on Earth, but today it feels more like a carnival sideshow."
The moment he said it, he worried that he'd offended her. The exhibit focused on her work, after all. But Stasia only laughed.
"This is what happens when you find physical evidence of the existence of giants."
They followed signs and the gestures of finely dressed men and women positioned at intervals within the museum to point out the way to the gala. The corridors seemed endless to Hellboy, the museum a labyrinth.
When they reached the exhibit hall, they found a line outside the door. A dapper-suited man stood to one side, obviously security. For a moment, Stasia stepped away to talk to him. Hellboy figured she wanted to make sure they were in the right place, that as participants in the dig, they weren't supposed to be somewhere else.
Two thirtyish men were in front of him in line, silently shuffling forward as the crowd squeezed into the exhibit hall. In front of them were an older couple, both extremely well dressed. The woman wore a gown fit for a royal ball and the man an expensively tailored suit that clashed with his eccentric features, his gray-white, unruly beard, and his thick glasses.
"C'est elle," the woman said, nose turning up snidely as she gestured toward Anastasia.
Hellboy frowned, glaring at the old couple. They didn't register his presence at all.
"Degout," said the old man. "Ils la prodiguent avec l'eloge si meilleurs les hommes passent inappercus."
His wife wrinkled her nose further. "C'est une culture de celebrite. Ils recompensent sa renommee, au lieu de ses capacites. Il est tout en raison de sa mascotte. Il y a une telle fascination pour ce rouge, singe de cirque."
A cold rage came over Hellboy. He wanted to shove the quiet young men aside and challenge the old couple to support their slanderous bile or retract the comments and apologize. The old man must have had something to do with the Parisian Archaeological Society. His bitterness and jealousy about the attention Anastasia received were obvious. But for them to suggest that her success was due more to the media attention their relationship had received than her own intelligence and abilities...it made him want to break something. Or someone.
Stasia strolled back to him and linked her arm through his, blissfully unaware of the way she'd been insulted. The old woman watched her with a wary, judgmental eye, and as she turned to follow Stasia's progress, she saw Hellboy standing close behind her in the line.
Realization dawned upon her with horror. Pale, she faced forward, tugging her husband hurriedly toward the entrance to the exhibit hall, though there were still others in front of them, and they were crowding the line.
Hellboy's rage subsided, and a different emotion took its place. The words echoed again and again in his mind. He knew Anastasia had achieved all that she had at such a young age because of her dedication, motivation, and skill. But if the world had begun to dismiss all of those things and attribute her skyrocketing career to her association with him...he couldn't have that.
It got him thinking clearly for the first time. All this time, his only concern had been the way people perceived him. A monster. Something frightening. How selfish he'd been, never to wonder how his presence would change the world's perception of her.
He'd been willing to endure the disdain, the Beauty and the Beast headlines, and the looks on the faces of those around them, even when they made him feel less than human. Hellboy hated the way they got under his skin, reminded him of the circumstances of his arrival in the world. But he could endure that forever if he could make Anastasia happy.
But if being with him might destroy her career, interfere with the passions of her life...
He couldn't be a part of that.
Anastasia squeezed his arm and smiled up at him. It had been their most perfect day together. In his heart, it had become the most terrible.
They made it into the exhibit hall. In moments, people began to approach them, congratulating Anastasia and eyeing Hellboy warily. Some shook his hand good-naturedly.
The old couple who had such venomous jealousy in their hearts stood off to one side, glaring daggers at Stasia as she gracefully fielded the compliments of her peers.
Hellboy strode over to them. Eyes slitted and lips drawn back, he glared down. He thought the old man might wet himself, but the old woman sniffed as though he were some filthy hound in need of a bath.
"Je parle francais couramment," he said.
The old woman took her husband's hand, and he meekly allowed her to lead him away.
Hellboy turned and watched as Anastasia chatted with her well-wishers and colleagues. To him, she had never looked more radiantly beautiful. But he knew now what the future would hold for them, and just looking at her broke his heart.
Hellboy didn't like the idea of leaving the monastery behind. Two BPRD agents were on-site--Sarah Rhys-Howard and Tim Meaney--and even with a broken arm, Danovich could take care of himself, but he felt reluctant to leave them within the strange plain walls of that structure. Anastasia shared his trepidation. She'd suggested they wait for the helicopters to arrive. Two choppers would carry most of the refugees from the dig site, then they'd all breathe a sigh of relief. But there was no way to know when the helicopters were coming, and every moment that passed was another tick of the clock closer to the Dragon King's return.
There were a lot of things Hellboy wasn't sure about, but on that score, he was confident--the Dragon King was coming back. Maybe it'd be an hour, or a week, or at sundown, but now that it had been reawakened, it wasn't going to just go away. Especially not without its tasty human morsel as a sacrifice.
Koh and Tenzin led the way north from the monastery. They trudged down the hill on the opposite side from where they'd ascended, across a narrow valley, and started up a steeper slope. The peak that rose above them was not quite as high as that upon which the monastery stood, but the way was difficult, almost treacherous. Hellboy found himself reaching out for Anastasia again and again, fearful that she might fall and be lost to him.
It troubled him. He would not have wished away the fondness he felt for her, but they could not afford to let what they were feeling interfere with the job that needed to be done. Hellboy made an effort to focus on Tenzin and Koh, who seemed to have no trouble at all scaling the rough terrain of the hillside.
"They've cozied up pretty quick," he said, low enough that only Anastasia would hear him.
She steadied herself on an outcropping of rock, then continued her scramble upward. "They speak the same language. It's a bond we don't share."
"You don't think Tenzin's from Nakchu village?"
"I don't think he's one of them, if that's what you mean," Stasia replied. She'd put sunglasses on, and her eyes were hidden behind the dark lenses and under the brim of her Yankees cap. Hellboy thought maybe that was for the best.
"Nah. Me either." When they visited Nakchu, Tenzin had been just as much a target of the villagers' anger as the rest of them. "Just making an observation. It's probably for the best. If things turn ugly, I wanna make sure Koh knows what side he's on."
"Why would things turn ugly?"
Hellboy shot her a dark look but didn't reply. As if they had ever been in a situation that didn't turn ugly, at least for a little while. But he couldn't say that.
"You have any idea what we're looking for, exactly? The grave of Dwenjue, sure. But what's it look like?"
Stasia paused, taking a breather, and studied him through her dark lenses. "I don't know. Koh apparently knows exactly what he's looking for. What puzzles me is the fact that there's a grave at all."
She started climbing again. Hellboy nearly offered her his hand, as if to help her up the hillside, but he thought better of it.
"What do you mean? You think Dwenjue's just a story?"
"Doubtful. No, that's not what I meant. You don't know this?"
Hellboy shifted his belt to keep his pistol from banging against his hip as he mounted the steep slope. "Obviously. If I knew, would I look all confused?"
"It's your perpetual look."
Koh and Tenzin had lengthened the distance between them. The guide and the dragon-man had been on these mountains their entire lives. They were used to climbing, and did it with the ease of San Franciscans striding up Telegraph Hill.
"You really don't know this?"
Hellboy fixed her with a withering glare.
Stasia laughed and held up a hand in surrender, using the other to keep her balance. "All right. Don't get your knickers in a twist. I'm just surprised, is all. There's an excellent reason why there aren't any tombs or catacombs back at the monastery. The people of Nakchu village are unusual for this region. The most common method of disposing of the dead is sky burial."
"Sky burial? They shoot them off in rockets? Float them on balloons?"
"It's fascinating, actually. The dead are brought to the monastery--unless of course the deceased is a monk, which would mean he's already there. There's a ritual, quite beautiful, in which the body is prepared. Then it's carried away from the monastery to a nearby hilltop meadow. They light incense to draw the birds--vultures, crows, and hawks--then they cut open the body and remove the organs, which they dispose of later.
"The men step back, and the vultures cover the entire corpse. In ten or fifteen minutes, they've picked it clean, and fly off. The monks use huge mallets to reduce the bones to powder and shards, then mix it with barley flour and feed it to the hawks and crows. When they're done, not a trace of the corpse is left behind."
Hellboy felt rocks give way beneath one hoof, and he grabbed fistfuls of hillside to keep from slipping. His left hand closed around tall grass that grew in patches.
Brow furrowed, he glanced at her. "That's pretty hideous."
"Actually, I think there's a kind of beauty to it."
"But that's why you're surprised there's a grave for Dwenjue, right? I mean, this ancient sky burial thing, he was a monk, they would've fed him to the birds?"
"It isn't only an ancient custom. It's still the most prevalent method of disposal of the dead."
Hellboy started up the hill again, and Anastasia fell in beside him. They were nearing the top. Above them, Koh and Tenzin had paused on the highest ridge. The guide carried his rifle over his shoulder. Koh wore a hat that made Hellboy think of Genghis Khan. He'd chosen not to mention this.
"You're telling me they still do that? Cut their dead open and feed them to birds?"
Hellboy shook his head but said nothing more. Odd and gruesome as sky burial seemed to him, he found he liked the idea that there were still places in the world with customs so strange to him, places where McDonald's and Hollywood hadn't completely taken over.
The incline grew easier and the terrain more pleasant as they neared the top. The grass filled in, and the entire hilltop was one large meadow, now. It wasn't Julie Andrews at the beginning of The Sound of Music, but the beauty of the place was undeniable.
Until he saw Stasia glancing up, followed her gaze, and saw the vultures circling.
"It's my best day ever," Hellboy muttered.
Koh and Tenzin waited for them at the edge of a large, fenced meadow. There were two small temples, one at the northwest corner and one at the southeast. At the center of the meadow was a circle of stones where the grass seemed to grow taller and thicker than elsewhere. Hellboy tried not to imagine what kind of fertilizer had helped the grass along.
"This is a durtro?" Stasia asked.
Tenzin repeated the question to Koh in the dragon-man's language.
"I'm guessing that's where they do sky burials," Hellboy said.
"What gave it away, the vultures?"
He said nothing, only strode off to the right, toward the small temple there. Koh shouted something after him, but Hellboy ignored him.
"Wait!" Tenzin called.
Hellboy ignored him, too. But by the time he reached the door to the temple, Tenzin had caught up. Koh hung back, eyes narrowed. The morning had been sunny, but now, in midafternoon, the sky had become gray and ominous with storm clouds. Against that dark backdrop, the flames that had begun to lick from the corners of Koh's eyes were vivid and bright.
"This is a holy place," Tenzin said. "You must allow Koh to enter first."
Hellboy looked at them, then stepped aside and gestured with a flourish. "Be my guest."
Koh hesitated at the door, then entered. Hellboy followed him in, leaving Stasia and Tenzin outside in the meadow. The shadows were deep inside the temple, but he could tell by the scent of the place--its damp, rich aroma--that no one had been inside in a very long time. Not until they'd violated its peace, just as they had with the Dragon King. That was archaeology, though, a series of disinterments and violations. All for the greater good, of course.