Hellboy: The Dragon Pool Page 1

Author: Christopher Golden

Genres: Fantasy , Horror



The surface of Lake Tashi rippled with the cool breeze that swept down from the snowcapped mountains of the Nyenchen Tanghla range. Anastasia Bransfield gazed out across sapphire water that gleamed in golden sunlight, and knew that she stood at the edge of the world, at a place where gods and legends seemed not so very far away and never forgotten.

At forty-two, she had spent half her life as an archaeologist, preeminent in her field, and her work had taken her to some of the most remote and exotic locations in the world--not to mention some of the most dangerous. Yet never had she visited a place more beautiful than this Tibetan mountain range. Lake Tashi stretched across a plateau fifteen thousand feet above sea level. The air carried the chill from the mountains, yet it was clean and crisp and made her feel more alive than she had ever felt before.

On the hillside above the lake, gusts of wind swirled small clouds of dirt up and away, as her team excavated an ancient village where a mountain king was rumored to have lived. The British Museum had launched this dig as a joint venture with the Archaeological Council of Tibet. The region was controlled by the Chinese government, which was usually resistant to the idea of digging up the past, particularly sites that might be considered holy--but Anastasia had received the blessing of both parties to lead the expedition. Her reputation had won over the Chinese, something the museum people had counted on when they hired her.

She stood at the base of the hill, taking her first official break of the day. The excavation had been going quite well thus far. They had exposed one structure that appeared to be a fairly large, communal building that would be quite uncharacteristic for a mountain village thousands of years old--unless it was a palace. It seemed they had found preliminary evidence that the theories behind the expedition were sound.

Anastasia cared not at all.

Only a few members of her team knew it, but she hadn't come up here looking for the palace of any mountain king. Or, more accurately, it wasn't all she'd come for. If her own research held up, there was a reason none of the legends and stories about the village ever gave the same name for the king, or his people. There was a reason the breathtaking landscape around Lake Tashi was inhabited only by nomadic herders. And although there was a small village not far to the northwest, and a monastery on a mountainside to the east, there was a reason that no one had ever settled on the hills above the lake or on its shores.

There were secrets here. And there were those who did not want the dig to continue for fear of those secrets being unearthed. In the fifteen weeks since they had begun, equipment had been sabotaged or stolen, excavation sites had caved in even though she herself had seen to their safety and stability, and strange figures had been spotted sneaking around the encampment after dark. Her top engineer, Frank Danovich, had admitted to her that he'd gotten a quick glimpse of an intruder by flashlight on the night of a cave-in, and said the bastard was so ugly he was monstrous.

Anastasia had asked him to elaborate, but Danovich had just knocked back a shot of rum and turned away. She hadn't prodded him further. Anastasia had dealt with her share of monsters. As far as the rest of the world was concerned, she'd even been in love with one once upon a time.

"What's your secret?" she whispered, gazing out across the brilliant blue water of Lake Tashi. The wind whistled down off the mountains, but carried no answer.

Yet she had her suspicions.

"Dr. Bransfield!" a voice called from behind her.

She turned and squinted. With the angle of the sun coming over the hill, even the brim of her New York Yankees cap was not enough to keep the glare from her eyes. She held up a hand to shade her face, and at last she could make out the figure hurrying down the rough path they had worn up the hillside to the dig site. Rafe Mattei was a twenty-two-year-old archaeology student, one of a group that was having its first real field exposure on this expedition. For a kid--at forty-two, she figured she'd earned the right to call him that--Rafe was a handsome man, tall and thin, with rich chocolate eyes.

Anastasia tried not to think about him that way. It helped that he called her Dr. Bransfield; it reminded her that she herself wasn't a kid anymore.

"Dr. Bransfield!" he called again.

Rafe nearly tripped as he reached the bottom of the hill. His eyes were wide with excitement, and he was flushed from having run all the way down to fetch her.

"What've we got, Rafe?" she asked, striding past him and starting up the hill along the same path he had descended.

He fell into step beside her without complaint. "Professor Kyichu sent me to bring you back. We found it, Dr. Bransfield. The temple."

Anastasia stopped and turned to him. Rafe searched her eyes, enthusiastic but still not quite sure what the significance of it all was. How could he be? None of the students knew what she was really looking for--but Kyichu did. A Tibetan who'd been living and teaching in London for years, Kyichu was the one who had convinced the Chinese government to cooperate. The widower had even brought his eleven-year-old daughter, Kora, along as an unofficial member of the team. Anastasia had shared with him her true goal, but only after he had begun to guess at her purpose. He thought her a dreamer, thought she put too much stock in legends, but Anastasia had insisted that every legend grew from a seed of truth, and that was what she sought on the shore of Lake Tashi.

"Is it part of the palace?" she asked.

Rafe shook his head. "Just next to it. All they've excavated so far is the door. There's writing on it, though. A lot of writing."

Anastasia laughed softly. She took off her Yankees cap and shook out her long, strawberry blond hair, feeling strangely freed by this news. With a grin she grabbed Rafe's head in both hands, pulled him forward, and kissed his forehead.

"That's the best news I've had in a year."

Shaking her head at her own caprice, she hurried up the hill, baseball cap crushed in her grip. In truth, until she knew what was written on that door, this discovery could be either good news, or a frustrating disappointment. But at least she would have the beginnings of the answers she sought.

Together they hurried up the hillside. Though she was in excellent physical condition, by the time they reached the excavation site, Anastasia was huffing and had to stop to catch her breath. She told herself it was the elevation and was pleased to see that Rafe seemed equally winded. Dust from the dig swirled away in the chill mountain breeze, but she tugged on the neck of her thick sweater, overheated from the climb.

Students and other archaeologists on the team hovered around her as she made a beeline for the place Rafe indicated. They barraged her with questions, but she ignored them, her focus entirely on the opening in the hillside ahead. Equipment had been pulled back, and diggers stood around, waiting for instructions.

On the edge of the newly excavated hole, she fell to her knees. The hole sloped down at a forty-five-degree angle. The ladders had been laid down more as steps than to be used for climbing. Professor Kyichu stood in front of a stone door with one of the students. Etched in the door were lines of characters from the ancient language of this land.

"Han," Anastasia said.

He turned and smiled up at her. "That was fast."

"What does it say?"

Professor Kyichu nodded, his expression turning solemn. "You were right, Dr. Bransfield. I am sorry for doubting it. We have found the legend that we sought.

"We have found the Dragon King Pool."

On her knees, there in the dirt, Yankees cap still clutched in her hand, Anastasia could only grin. She shook her head in amazement. Moments like this--they made all of the tedium worthwhile.

"Have you translated the--" she began.

A shout interrupted her, a voice calling her name. Hers and Han Kyichu's.

Anastasia turned, half-rising, to see Ellie Morris running toward her. Others gave way as Ellie raced to the edge of the hole, panic in her eyes, chest heaving with exertion.

"Ellie, what is it, love?"

Anastasia reached for her, but the woman threw her hands up, shaking her head. Her eyes were damp with nascent tears.

"Professor," Ellie said, staring down into the hole, not even noticing the remarkable temple door they had discovered. "Han...I'm sorry, we've searched everywhere, but..."

The woman bit her lip, a tear tracing through the dirt on her face. She clapped a hand over her mouth, and now the tears fell in earnest.

"Please, Eleanor," Professor Kyichu said, "what has happened?"

Ellie hugged herself, glanced at Anastasia, then back at Han Kyichu. "It's your daughter, Professor. It's Kora. We can't find her anywhere.

"She's gone."

Chapter 1

Hellboy barreled down the mountain trail, breaking a new path through the trees. Branches slapped at him, scratching his face and generally pissing him off. He let out a thunderous shout of frustration and annoyance as he hurtled between a pair of tall trees. The space was too narrow, and his shoulders scraped the trunks, tearing off bark. His hooves pounded the hard earth beneath him, maneuvering over rocks and upraised roots, sliding in moss.

I came to Chile for this? he thought. Coulda gone to Rio, watching some half-naked girls on parade.

He came to the edge of a ravine, but his momentum was too great. No way could he stop. Instead he leaped, throwing himself toward the opposite side. His arms pinwheeled, and he pulled his legs up, sure he would make it...then sure he would not.

"Ah, crap." He crashed into the wall of the ravine, a few feet shy of the top. Vines hung down, and he tried to get his hands tangled in them, tried to get ahold of something, but it was too late.

He landed in a heap at the base of the ravine, legs buckling beneath him, and sprawled across the richly smelling earth. Something ripped, and he hoped it was the tear in his jacket getting worse and not the seat of his pants. This whole mission was humiliating enough already.

Hellboy stood, bones aching from the sprinting he'd done, and brushed leaves and moss off of his long, brown jacket and shorts. He pulled some kind of weird fuzz off of his cheek, where it had stuck to his bristly stubble.

"This was a stupid plan," he muttered, even as he warily looked up at the edge of the ravine twenty feet above him.

A shape darted into view, dark against the gloom of the forest, wings beating the air as it circled above him. In the shadows, it could have passed for an owl. But he wasn't that lucky.

The thing let out a flesh-prickling cry and began to circle faster. Calling all its little buddies, Hellboy thought. Fantastic. All according to plan. Use the big, indestructible guy as bait.

Even as the thought went through his head, he saw other shadows flitting out of the trees, wings fluttering as they joined the first, gliding above him like vultures.

"All right, buzzards. Just had to catch my breath."

With a sigh, he drew his gun, a huge, heavy pistol with a barrel four times the width of any ordinary handgun. Growing up, training with the BPRD, his marksmanship scores had never risen above pitiful. But if he got close enough, and with a gun this big, he could hit just about anything.

They dived toward him, dropping out of the sky, wings pinned as they came in for the kill. Hellboy took aim, squeezed the trigger, and one of them exploded into gristle and red mist. Then the others were swarming around him, and Hellboy gritted his teeth in disgust.

Flying heads, he thought. That's what my life has come to? Flying heads?

They had a name, he knew. The locals--the Araucanian people of Chile--called them Chonchonyi, but Hellboy couldn't take the damn things seriously. They were huge, monstrous heads with hideous, elongated faces. Their narrow fangs jutted up from black, ropy lips, and black, ridged wings stuck out from the sides of the heads like grotesque ears. Despite their ridiculous appearance, they were as vicious as any other strain of vampire, feasting on the old and infirm and relishing the blood and flesh of small children best of all. They never would have come after Hellboy...but he'd gone after them first.

"It's nothing personal," he said. He leveled the massive pistol again and pulled the trigger. The bullet tore a wing off one of the bloodthirsty heads, and it fell to the ground, convulsing. "It's my job."

Hell of a way to make a living.

They swarmed him. Hellboy swatted at them with his huge, stone hand. One of the Chonchonyi landed on his left shoulder, fangs tearing through his jacket, sinking deep into his flesh. He cried out in pain, swore loudly, then slammed purposefully into a tree, scraping the thing off on the rough bark. It left a stinking, bloody smear and released a stench like skunk cabbage. He knew he'd never get the smell out of his coat.

Another bit into his tail, and he whipped the appendage up, tossing the bloodsucking predator into a tangle of bushes.

"That's it," he muttered. "The tail's off-limits."

He ran again, wondering why he'd stopped. Sure, the fall down the ravine had slowed him down, but trying to make a stand against a swarm of ravenous, flesh-eating, flying heads was just stupid. He had crap aim and not enough bullets, and anyway, that wasn't the plan.

Stick to the plan, he told himself.

He ran, hooves punching through soft soil now, years of detritus that had built up at the base of the ravine. When he emerged, he spared a quick glance upward and gauged his direction by the location of the sun. Typical vampires didn't come out until after dark, but the BPRD records included dozens of offshoot breeds or related species, and they all had their own rules. These things preferred the dark and the damp, but they'd go where the food was if necessary. Or if someone had stirred up their nest with a thermite charge and burned down a couple of acres of Chilean forest.

Whatever worked.

"Come on, come on," he muttered as he ran. The gun felt heavy in his hand. Several of the disgusting things flapped around his head, trying to take a bite of him, but they couldn't latch on while he was in motion. One snapped its jaws at his right temple, and its fangs struck the filed stumps of his horns, raising sparks. Hellboy slapped it away with the barrel of his gun.

Annoyed, he got off another shot, but the bullet plunged harmlessly into the forest. He had a hard enough time hitting a target when they were both standing still. With both him and the target in motion, the idea was absurd. He fired another bullet, just because it made him feel good to get out some of his frustration. The things were like giant vampire mosquitoes, and they were annoying the crap out of him.

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