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The Bentley was in flames as it crested the hill. The jagged edges of the broken windshield were blackened by fire. The paint on the hood bubbled, heat blisters popped. The tiny two-lane strip of Vermont highway was deserted at just past three in the morning. There were no streetlights, just the moon and the burning Bentley to illuminate the night. The car drifted from one side of the road to the other, then was jerked suddenly back on course. It repeated that pattern several times.
There was no one behind the wheel.
Which did not mean the Bentley was unoccupied. Not at all. Merely that nothing human rode in that infernal vehicle.
A massive tentacle shot through the demolished windshield. Purple and pustulent, it whipped from side to side, probing the other windows of the car, then trying to beat down the flames that rose from the Bentley's engine.
Other tentacles sprouted from windows all around the car, dripping vile fluid. The interior of the Bentley did not have room for those tentacles. Never had. And certainly, it did not have space for the creature which had spawned them. Something that might have been a tail -- thick and green with vicious-looking razor spines along its length -- burst through the rear window. It was burning with a cold, blue flame quite unlike the fire in the Bentley's engine.
A ropy, muscular proboscis spiked through the roof of the car, then sniffed the air like the snout of an aardvark. A bulbous, fleshy boil seemed to balloon up through the hole the proboscis had made. It quickly inflated and, after a few moments, eyes began to open all across its surface.
Within the Bentley, something bellowed. Something almost human. Most certainly not the repulsive terror which now seemed to be pouring from the burning vehicle. The tentacled thing issued a keening whistle which may have been a cry of pain, or of triumph.
As the car approached a darkened roadside diner, two quick shots rang out, resounding in the silence of the night, and echoed back to the car from the dense forest on either side of the street. Then a third shot. That was all.
The proboscis abandoned its search; the bulbous sack of eyes exploded in a shower of viscous liquid which set the fire blazing even higher, as if it had been sprinkled with gasoline.
With a screech of metal, the passenger door blew off the side of the car, trailing flames and whipping tentacles.
A body tumbled out, a huge figure which appeared to be covered with blood. The body hit the ground, rolled, stopped. The long, brown duster coat the figure wore was on fire.
The Bentley rolled on toward the diner.
Its former passenger rolled around on the pavement, then leaped to his feet. He batted at the flames already eating holes through his coat.
"Damn," he hissed, putting out the last of them, cursing the ruined duster and the way his ribs hurt from hitting the ground.
There was a tumultuous crash, followed by the tinkling of shattered glass hitting pavement. He turned to see that the Bentley had come to a stop, half in, half out of the diner. The flames began to catch. The loathsome thing inside the automobile shrieked its pain and anger, tentacles burning, lashing side to side, slowing down.
Limping slightly, the surviving passenger began to walk across the diner's parking lot toward a phone booth.
He was huge. Tall and broad.
His skin was like a scarlet callus, worn down and healed over time and again for millennia. But it wasn't callous at all. It was, merely, his skin. His hooves clicked on the tarmac, and his long tail curled out from under the bottom of his duster, never touching ground. On his forehead were two round protrusions, flat, amputated stumps of what had once been thick, proud horns. The perfect redness of his flesh was marred only by a goatee and sideburns of coarse black hair and a bristly stubble on his scalp, chest, and legs.
A terrifying face. Made all the more disturbing when he smiled.
But he wasn't smiling now. Not even the hint of a smile.
He slid back the door of the phone booth, and was forced to stand sideways and bend his knees slightly to move inside. His right hand was huge, oversized even for his body. It wasn't made of flesh, but, rather, some kind of stone. Or, perhaps, some other substance which human beings had not named as yet. He held the phone with that hand and dialed with his left. Such delicate operations were always done with his left hand.
"It's a collect call," he said, and though the tone was pleasant enough, there was something unsettling, something cold about his voice.
"Just say a collect call from Vermont," he insisted, a bit testily.
After several moments of listening, he said, "Thank you," and waited some more.
"Tom," he said finally, "it's Hellboy."
As he listened to his superior's questions, Hellboy scratched idly at the stubble on his head.
"Yeah," he said. "Yeah, it's all set. Mrs. Crittendon didn't care about the house or the car, she just wanted the thing out of there. Too bad, though. It was a nice car."
Hellboy cocked his head to one side, then raised an eyebrow at the next question.
"Tom, I'm telling you it's all set," he said. "The damn thing's on fire, after all . . . What do you mean it can't be killed by fire?
"Well it isn't moving, anyway.
"Of course I'm sure."
As he said this last, Hellboy turned to glance at the diner.
"Tom, hold on a minute, okay?" he said, then dropped the phone.
In the calliope flash of the firelight, Hellboy could see that the thing within the Bentley had begun to move. It was flowing, tentacle after tentacle, through the crater it had ripped in the car's roof, and had begun to pull itself out onto the top of the vehicle.
Hellboy reached for his gun. It wasn't there. A quick glance told him he had dropped it when he'd rolled around trying to put out his blazing coat. Not that it mattered, though. He was pretty sure he'd used all his ammunition.
The infernal beast dragged the bulk of its body out onto the roof and began to slide down the Bentley's rear windshield, leaving a trail of putrid mucus in its wake. It looked smaller, and he wondered if the thing had somehow detached itself from the rest of its body to escape the fire. Or, since the fire didn't seem to be killing it, maybe it was just pissed off end was coming after him.
That seemed more likely.
Hellboy rifled through the pouches of his belt and then the seemingly endless pockets of his duster. Charms, talismans, and a rosary blessed by Pope Pius XII fell to the pavement in a clatter. A ward against evil made for Hellboy by a Santeria priest pricked his left index finger.
"Jeez!" he hissed, and sucked on the finger for a moment before resuming his search.
Out of his pockets, he produced dozens of objects invested with the power to protect him from evil. They didn't always help. In this case, he knew they wouldn't be enough.
His left hand wrapped around something metal, hard. He pulled it out. It was a flashlight. Seconds later, something else substantial . . . some kind of weapon! Hellboy aimed the weapon and was about to fire when he realized what he was holding.
A flare gun.
Lot of good that would do.
He could hear Tom -- Dr. Manning -- yelling over the phone. He couldn't make out the words, but he assumed the man wanted to know if he was all right. Or at least if he'd succeeded in his mission.
The vulgar obscenity that had been within the Bentley began to slide from the trunk to the parking lot just behind the burning car. Its tentacles stretched out, blindly attempting to sense his location. When they stopped swaying, Hellboy knew the thing had somehow pinpointed him. In a moment, it would start after him.
"Come on!" he shouted, not at the shrilly screaming creature, but in frustration with his search.
His fingers touched something hard, and square. If not for the smooth metal surface, it might have been a child's block, innocently lettered "A, B, C." Not so innocent, though. A smile contorted Hellboy's features into a menacing grimace. He withdrew the square from his pocket. On one of its six sides, there was a circular impression, a slight indentation.
It was a thermite charge, leftover from the Finland debacle two years before. He knew it would come in handy now. Fire might not kill the thing, but the explosive power of the tiny bomb would do the trick. All he had to do was . . .
The Bentley blew up. The flames had finally reached the gas tank, and the car exploded in a rain of shrapnel and charred demon flesh. The glass of the phone booth blew out, and Hellboy lifted his stone hand to shield his eyes.
He stared into the conflagration left behind, the diner starting to burn now as well. Where pieces of the beast had fallen, they were now melting into the pavement, leaving oddly designed scars behind on the parking lot.
After a moment, he remembered his interrupted call. He limped back to the ruined booth, and was surprised to hear Dr. Manning's shouts still coming from the dangling phone.
"Tom," he said. "Calm down, we're all set now.
"No, this time I'm really sure. Yes, I promise! What am I, twelve? Now listen, what's this new case, I thought I was going to Edinburgh with the others?
"Egypt, what the hell is in Egypt?" he asked, completely bewildered.
In the distance, he could hear several sets of sirens. Closer still, however, was the pounding rhythm of a helicopter's rotors.
"All right, look . . . no, no, wait. Yeah, my ride's here. Fill me in when I get back to the office."
As the helicopter landed in the parking lot, Hellboy stooped and ran to pick up his gun. He holstered it, then hoisted himself up into the chopper's cargo bay.
"Jesus," the pilot said, glancing over his shoulder as they took flight once more. "Remind me never to piss you off."
"Come on, Kevin," he said. "I'm not the temperamental type."
"Uh-huh," the pilot responded.
"Well now, what the hell is that supposed to mean?"
Hellboy: The Lost Army © 1997 Mike Mignola. Dark Horse Comics © and the Dark Horse logo are registered trademarks of Dark Horse comics, Inc. All rights reserved.