Extract from Hellboy: Unnatural Selection

October 13th, 2000 • Posted in Extracts |

“That is one big worm.” Hellboy had always wanted to take a trip to Rio, but not to fight dragons.

“Weird how people get used to things,” Amelia Francis said. She was a lecturer in Mythology in History at the local university, and a BPRD advisor in South America. She had met Hellboy at the airport less than two hours ago. Now they were standing beside the road staring up at the dragon that perched on the outstretched left arm of Christ the Redeemer. “Ask most people now, and they’ll shake their heads and smile and say it’s a joke.”

“Even though that thing turned half of Copacabana beach into a sheet of glass?”

“People can’t believe, so they choose not to.”

“Huh.” Hellboy rolled his unlit cigarette across his lips. He’d already searched through his jacket pockets for some matches and drawn a blank. He wished Liz were here with him. “What about them?” He pointed up the mountain at the colourful speck climbing its slopes. From here they looked like insects.

Amelia sighed. “They’re not the first. The police are doing their best to deter the journalists, sensation-seekers or souvenir hunters, but it’s a big place. They can’t seal it off totally.”

“Huh,” Hellboy said again. He stared up at the dragon. “Souvenirs?”

“From … from what I know about dragons it’s …” She trailed off, staring up past Hellboy. “That’s a dragon!”

“Sure looks like it.” He glanced at the woman, looked away, back again. She’d hardly raised an eyebrow when he arrived at the airport; not the usual response he engendered. His lobster-red skin, horn stumps and waving tail usually attracted some sort of comment, even from people he’d met before. Amelia had known of him – she had imparted that much, at least – but she’d already seen something more amazing that day.

He had to admit, it was quite a sight.

“So …souvenirs?”

“You don’t know about dragons?” she asked.

“They’re lizards. They breathe fire. They’re not nice.”

“Actually they were harmless once,” the lecturer said. “Burnt crops when people pissed them off, that was about their limit. Then Christianity turned them into demons, and they became demons, and they were hunted to extinction. At least, that’s how the story goes. The story also says that if you eat a dragon’s heart, you’ll understand the language of birds.”

“Useful,” Hellboy said. “But that thing up there doesn’t look extinct to me.”

Amelia paled, leaned against the timber railing for support. Hellboy smiled and touched her shoulder gently with his big stone-like hand. Reality kept hitting her, surprising her with what she was actually looking at.

“What about the military?” he asked.

Amelia shrugged. “They’ve been to me too. And … maybe it’s my fault they’re not doing anything. I told them that the appearance of a dragon was once thought to be an omen of good fortune.”

“And is it?”

Amelia shrugged again, but said nothing.

“Well, we can’t just leave it there. I have to go up. See what that thing wants. Can’t let it fly around and burn the place.”

“How will you stop it?”

“I’ll find a way, it’s what I do. Will you drive me to the station?”

“Oh yes, you bet!”

They heard a sudden screech, then a loud roar that spread out over the city. Hellboy looked up in time to see the dragon dip its head and sweep it across the rim of the plateau. Several waving shapes burst into flames and tumbled down the cliffs, their screams too far away to hear.

“Omen of good luck,” he said. “You sure, Amelia?”

“Oh those poor people …” She looked up into Hellboy’s eyes, and for the first time he recognised her fear.

***

As Amelia drove her Jeep toward the mountain train station, Hellboy leaned from the window and stared up. The dragon was still there, perched quite comfortably on Christ’s outstretched arm, surveying the view as if it owned the place. Occasionally it stretched its wings, stood up and belched fire at the sky. Hellboy was not sure why until he saw the press helicopters hovering nearby.

So much for covert. He hated being the centre of attention.

They followed the road around the slope of the mountain, and for a while a bulk of rock obscured the view. Hellboy sat back in his seat and chewed softly on the unlit cigarette. He wished – not for the first time – that he’d listened to Professor Bruttenholm when he had told Hellboy to spend more time learning. Maybe then he would know more about dragons, where they came from, what they wanted, what species this one was … and most importantly, how he could stop it. He touched the big gun on his belt and smiled. Bad shot though he was, he couldn’t miss this sucker.

“Are you really from Hell?” Amelia asked.

Hellboy scowled. “So what’s your area of expertise again?”

“Mythology.”

“I’m no myth. Drive.”

Amelia was silent for the next few minutes, but when they finally reached the station she stopped the Jeep and turned to Hellboy, face stern. “I think it may Draconis Albionensis, a British dragon usually known as the Firedrake. Big. Strong. Weird that it’s here, as most dragons were commonly sighted in Europe, North Africa, China and Asia. I’m not aware of any dragon legends from North or South America. Very strange.”

“How do I kill it?”

“Put on a suit of armour and pick up a sword. They’re not immortal, you know.”

Hellboy frowned for a moment, then smiled at Amelia. She was not mocking him. Far from it; she was helping him. She shivered even in this heat, and he patted her leg softly. “Hey, I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean to be gruff. That’s just me and … well, I don’t really like talking about me.”

“I’ve always known about you, but in the flesh you’re amazing.”

“Hmph. I wish all the girls thought that way.” Hellboy nodded his thanks and opened his door.

“Hellboy?” He looked back at Amelia. “That’s a dragon,” she said. “And that’s impossible. A dragon … it’s myth. A story. They don’t really exist.”

At that moment the dragon roared and let fly a breath of fire at a helicopter that had strayed too close. The aircraft veered away, paint blistered and rubber door seals smoking from the heat. The creature flapped its wings, stretched its neck, then settled back onto its roost.

“I think he’d disagree with you, Amelia,” Hellboy said. “Hey, do me a favour? Wait here for me. I don’t plan on being long.”

She nodded. “Be careful.”

“If I had a last name … ‘Careful’ would be my middle one.”

***

On his way up the mountain in the deserted train, Hellboy called in to HQ. He asked to speak to Kate Corrigan, the BPRD’s advisor on the paranormal, but she was busy somewhere else. Similarly Tom Manning, the Director now that Professor Bruttenholm was dead. “Is there anyone there I can talk to?” Hellboy shouted, but the guy on the other end said something about being busy, having lots on, and the world going to hell.

“Yeah, right,” Hellboy muttered. He clicked off his satellite phone and tried to enjoy the trip.

The train clunked up the well-used tracks, taking him to a place where millions of people had gone to worship or admire, or just to enjoy the view. He would be doing none of that. He flexed the fingers of his left hand, tapped the fingers of his right hand against the metal railing. They made a musical sound; if only he could identify the tune. And if he knew the tune, if only it had lyrics that would tell him more. Then he could sing along and learn the truth.

He had been called a dragon, once. A Catholic priest down in Ecuador had fallen to his knees when he saw Hellboy, clutching his rosary beads and prattling on in Spanish, shouting and screaming and generally acting all upset. Hellboy was used to causing such a reaction, and he had smiled and shrugged and generally tried to exude benevolence. But even while he was being dragged away the priest had raged, and the only the word Hellboy had been able to make out had been ‘dragon’. That had offended him at the time, but later, sitting alone in the remains of a ruined church, he had looked at himself in a puddle of rainwater. And the offence had turned to sadness.

“Come on, dammit!” He thumped the side of the train car and left it dented. He shook his head. He hated these moments of calm before the storm, because they gave him time to muse upon his own nature. But then, he supposed that was good. Thinking such thoughts always got him in the mood for a fight.

***

Walking across the concrete esplanade, Hellboy was struck by the size of the statue of Christ. It was a magnificent effigy, beautiful, and he could only marvel at the builders who had constructed it so long ago.

Right now it was marred by the fire-breathing bastard sitting on its left arm. And below it, still steaming, dragon crap stained the hem of Christ’s robes.

“Now that’s just disrespectful,” Hellboy said. “Hey! You!”

The dragon twisted on its perch and looked down at Hellboy. It moved without making a noise, and that unsettled him. Something so big and bulky should be clumsy, not graceful. Maybe he could learn a thing or two from this creature.

“We need to talk,” he said. And for a second he thought that might suffice. The dragon put its head to one side, as if ready to listen. It dropped quietly from its perch, wings out for balance, and stepped daintily toward Hellboy, as if ready to parley.

And then it opened its jaws and sent a fireball his way.

Even as Hellboy rolled to the side he was aware of the press helicopters homing in on this new confrontation. He hated the press. If they saw him trampled and gutted and having his insides burnt out they’d film, not help. He swore that today, they’d get no scoop of that sort.

He stood and pulled the pistol, letting off a shot that punched a hole in the dragon’s wing. It didn’t seem to bother the worm in the slightest, and Hellboy saw why; its wings were giants sails, thick leathery skin strung between sinewy supports, and they were already full of holes. He’d wasted a precious round just to add another.

The dragon roared and came at him. Its claws, previously so light and elegant, scored channels in the concrete as it ran. Its tail waved behind it, ripping the steel hand-railing from the edge of the esplanade. Its head swayed from side to side as it ran, and the closer it came, the larger its teeth appeared.

Instead of turning to flee, Hellboy ran forward to meet it.

The dragon pulled up short, perhaps surprised by Hellboy’s tactic, and gushed another wall of fire in his direction. But Hellboy was ready for that, and he did a long forward roll through the flames and out the other side. When he stood, smouldering slightly, he was only feet away from the dragon’s head.

“That’s not nice,” he said, and he punched the creature square on the nose with his heavy right hand.

The dragon roared, then whimpered. It reared up to its full height – big, very big, easily ten times as tall as Hellboy – and snorted. A couple of weak flames came from its nostrils, and then only smoke. It snorted again. Blood flecked the concrete around Hellboy, and he wiped a glob of it from his eye.

“Again?” Hellboy said.

The dragon seemed to agree. It launched itself forward and fell on all fours, trapping Hellboy beneath its stomach and crushing him down into the concrete. He gasped, tried to twist away, lost hold of the pistol. And then the dragon began to move across the esplanade, dragging Hellboy beneath it.

“Crap. Crap!” His jacket was ripped, his skin scored by the concrete, and the creature above him rumbled with something that could have been laughter. “You laughing at me, barbeque breath?”

The dragon stood and Hellboy immediately punched upward into its gut. It roared in pain and stumbled sway, its swinging tail catching Hellboy across the chest as it retreated. He went sprawling, and as he came to a stop he leaned over and picked up the pistol. “That’s convenient,” he said, firing at the dragon’s head. The bullet ricocheted from the heavy scales above its eye and winged off somewhere over Rio.

That really pissed off the giant worm.

This is turning bad, Hellboy thought. Before he could stand, the dragon snatched him up in one of its claws and launched itself over the edge of the parapet.

The ground dropped away beneath Hellboy. Still clasping the pistol in his left hand, he was now loathe to use it. Kill the dragon, fall a few hundred feet with ten tonnes of dead meat right above him … that did not appeal. And besides, there were houses down there, cars, parks and people. His only hope now was to wait and see whether this thing took him over open ground. Then, perhaps, a bullet in the spine.

Looking way, way down he could see Amelia’s Jeep parked in the station car park. He waved, almost laughed with the ridiculousness of the gesture, but he could not see whether the lecturer waved back.
The dragon flew hard and fast, and it took only a minute for the land beneath them to give way to sea. Now, Hellboy thought, this is when I can-

The dragon dropped him. They must have been quarter of a mile high.

Hellboy wanted to scream, but that way he’d lose the crushed cigarette in his mouth. He wanted to shoot, but his arms were pinwheeling in an attempt to keep himself upright as he fell. And he wanted, so much, to reach the water. Because he knew exactly what was coming next.

The dragon swept down at him and belched fire. Hellboy grimaced as the flames engulfed him, singeing his hair and goatee, stretching his skin, igniting his utility belt. When the flames guttered out the dragon was already diminishing into the distance.

Hellboy had time to draw one puff on his newly lit cigarette before he struck the surface of the bay.

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