"Ah, crap!" he barked, as bits of stone and dirt hailed down upon him.

Professor Bruttenholm was only glad that he seemed unharmed and hadn't completely caved in the entrance.

The helicopter roared toward the lakeshore, hovering a moment before beginning to set down.

"Hello, sir," Hellboy said.

"You're all right?" the professor asked.

Hellboy stood and brushed off his long jacket, then twisted his head to stretch the muscles in his neck.

"Ambush. Sort of. We're fine. We were on the way back when Redfield picked us up." He looked around at the guns and other brandished weapons, then at the corpses of Sima and Rafe Mattei. "Guess it's not news that the dragon guys are bringing the girl here."

Professor Bruttenholm stared at him. "Dragon guys?"

Hellboy drew his gun and turned toward the entrance to the preparatory chamber. He walked two steps toward it before glancing back.

"Yeah. Nakchu village. Dragon-human half-breeds. All of 'em. They think opening this chamber's gonna make the Dragon King rise, and he's gonna want breakfast. Some of them figure since it was this crew that woke him up, it should be one of theirs that gets sacrificed. Others disagree."

He gestured toward the chamber with the barrel of the gun. "Is anyone else in there?"

"Eleanor Morris and Mark Conrad, we believe," Professor Bruttenholm replied.

"All right. When Abe and Stasia and the others get up here, you hold them back. Nobody comes into that room but Tenzin and Koh."

Professor Bruttenholm held the pistol down at his side, his fingers still wreathed with the rosary of Pope Joan. He had been studying the supernatural for most of his life, had been in dire circumstances more times than he could recall, and now he wracked his brain for some solution that would not require Hellboy to enter that chamber.

He had none.

"You do realize I'm field leader on this investigation?" he said.

Hellboy gave him a look of exhaustion only sons could ever give their fathers. "Do you not want me to go in and save the cute little human sacrifice?"

Bruttenholm fixed him with a withering stare. "We have the only exit surrounded."

"If we wait until they come out, there's going to be shooting. Guaranteed. We have a better chance if someone tries to talk to them."

"And you think you're best suited for that? That you won't startle them? You've already drawn your gun, and you can't even speak their language."

Hellboy shook his head in frustration and set the gun down on the edge of the pit. "Did you notice me jumping out of the friggin' helicopter? We're kind of in a hurry, here. I don't need to speak the language. That's what Tenzin and Koh are for."

"Who is this Koh?" Bruttenholm snapped.

"Dragon guy. He's on our side."

"What?" the professor began, but Hellboy was already disappearing into the chamber, tail bobbing behind him.

Conversation started all around the excavation, mutterings about the girl, about Professor Kyichu, who stood next to Frank Danovich with his arms crossed, rocking a bit, lips moving wordlessly, perhaps in prayer. Professor Bruttenholm turned to watch Abe and Dr. Bransfield hurry up the slope toward the dig with the three other field agents he'd brought along, for all the good they'd done so far. He supposed that was the intention of backup--they were there in case the lead agents failed. The guide and translator, Tenzin, ran alongside, accompanied by a man dressed in the mountain garb particular to the region.

Bruttenholm raised an eyebrow. If this was Koh, he didn't look much like a dragon.

Hellboy made his way through the corridor that led into the preparatory chamber, ducking his head to avoid the lights the archaeologists had hung. They were bright enough to piss him off. The place was lit up like a night game at Fenway.

He tried his best to tread lightly, but his hooves crunched on the stone floor, and his jacket made a kind of shushing noise when he walked, like the nylons of the old German lady who ran the library at BPRD headquarters and was so ancient and militant she'd probably been Hitler's nanny.

The corridor took a little jog to the right ahead and opened into the chamber. A low chant whispered around him, echoing off the walls. Some kind of prayer to the Dragon King, he figured. Hellboy tried to count the voices, but all the echoing made it impossible. Not too many of them, though. Two or three, maybe four. Above the sound of the chanting, he could hear the little girl whimpering, and it set his teeth on edge and his fingers to flexing. The flexing wasn't good. It usually led to him breaking things--likes bones. So he put his hands up in a gesture of surrender and stepped around the corner into the chamber.

He saw Kora first. Her shirtsleeves and the legs of her jeans were torn open, and weird sigils had been painted on the skin there, and on her face. Her eyes were squeezed shut and three of the dragon-men surrounded her, one at each shoulder and one by her feet. Beyond them, he saw Ellie Morris, kneeling beside the corpse of Mark Conrad. Hellboy figured he was dead because of the bloody streak on the wall and the way his head didn't look quite round anymore.

Keeping his hands up in that peaceful gesture was just about the hardest thing he had ever done.

"You boys should just go home, now," he said, in as reasonable a tone as possible.

The chanting stopped. All three of the dragon-men twisted toward him, crocodile jaws opening in a hissing chorus. The fire that flickered up from their eyes didn't seem very bright amid the spotlights set up in that chamber, but that didn't make it any less freaky.

He raised his hands a few more inches, and their wary eyes followed the motion. The chamber was fifteen or sixteen feet high, but he couldn't put his hands up any farther. Hellboy wanted to make sure they didn't see him as threatening.

It didn't seem to be working. The two at the girl's shoulders gathered closer to her, putting protective hands on her. The third, at her feet and nearest to Hellboy, took a slithering kind of step toward him.

"Don't do it, Puff. I left my gun outside and everything. This doesn't need to get messy."

Which was when Kora spoke. Her eyes were still squeezed tightly closed.

"Who's there?" the little girl asked, her voice breaking with hope and despair in equal parts.

"A friend," he said. "Don't be afraid, Kora."

"I don't know how to not be afraid," she said.

"Hellboy--" Ellie Morris said.

A bad idea. One of the dragon-men twisted around, reached out, and grabbed Ellie by the hair, and hauled her, screaming, toward the altar where they'd been preparing Kora for sacrifice. Ellie screamed as her scalp tore, her shriek ragged in her throat.

"Son of a--" Hellboy began.

Kora opened her eyes. Maybe she'd been expecting the Dragon King to come and claim her, to eat her, to kill her...when she saw Hellboy, her eyes filled with such terror that she began to shake all over, her arms and legs trembling so hard on the altar that she seemed almost to be having some kind of fit.

Ellie was talking, maybe begging the dragon-man to let her go, or telling Kora that Hellboy really was a friend, even though maybe he didn't look like one. Either way, Hellboy didn't hear more than a muttering jumble of words, because he was otherwise occupied.

The dragon-man who'd slunk closer to him lunged, hissing.

Hellboy hissed back. It sounded and felt foolish, but he'd lost patience. The dragon-man reached hooked talons out to grab him, wide jaws opening. Hellboy didn't even try to avoid the thing's hands. The talons gripped him with enough strength to make small punctures in his thick hide. He didn't even feel it. In the same moment, he grabbed the dragon-man by the throat, raised his right fist, and hit him as hard as he could.

Bones broke in the dragon-man's face. His eyes rolled in his head, he let go of Hellboy and staggered backward, then fell down, either unconscious or dead.

The other two stayed on their side of the chamber. Hellboy figured they were having second thoughts about how to proceed. Ellie was kneeling beside the altar, bent over and whispering to Kora. A trickle of blood ran down the woman's face from where her scalp had torn. The dragon-man who'd grabbed her, a big, ugly bastard with yellow-and-red flesh and very little fire in his tiny, black eyes, held one of her shoulders. The second stood on Kora's other side, one hand closed over the girl's biceps.

He started talking to Hellboy.

"Sorry," Hellboy said, spreading his arms. "No comprendo." He pointed to the girl. "But I know you comprendo this. They're coming with me."

He tapped his chest, pointed at Kora and Ellie again, then repeated the gestures several times.

The dragon-man who'd tried to speak with him hissed.

Which was when Tenzin and Koh stepped into the chamber behind him. He could tell by their footsteps, but also by the spark of hope that flared in the eyes of the two dragon-men who weren't lying on the ground with a broken face. The guy on the floor twitched a little, so maybe he was also feeling hopeful, though Hellboy didn't think so.

The one holding Ellie's shoulder starting shouting at Koh, who immediately starting shouting back even louder. Koh was the son of the village elder, so Hellboy hoped he had some kind of authority over these guys. From his tone and the commanding hand gestures he made, Hellboy figured Koh at least thought he did, which was a start.

"How's he doing?" Hellboy asked, taking a quick sidelong glance at Tenzin.

The guide stepped up beside Hellboy, face grim. "Not well. They keep insisting that the sacrifice must be made or the Dragon King will rise."

"Has Koh mentioned all the people with guns waiting to kill them if they try leaving this room with the girl?"

Tenzin shrugged. "No one will shoot if they have the girl."

Hellboy frowned. "Whose side are you on? There are too many guns for them just to walk out there. Someone will get a bead on the backs of their skulls. They'll never make it down to the water alive. Tell them."

His voice shook when he translated what Hellboy had said. Then the dragon-men started screaming at Tenzin, too.

"I'm going to be very disappointed in you if you get me killed," the guide said.

"Me too. What are they saying now?"

Hellboy watched Ellie and Kora, ignoring the dragon-men now. He tried to nod to the girl, give her some kind of reassurance, but she only whimpered and twisted on the altar to bury her face against Ellie.

"I'm quite the charmer," Hellboy muttered.

"Still no good. Koh's arguing with them, but they just keep saying the sacrifice has to be made, and they'll die to save their village if they have to."

Hellboy sighed. Zealots were the worst.

"Look, Koh," he said.

All of them fell silent at his use of the name. Koh turned to look at him.

"Tell them that they're right," Hellboy said, and Tenzin translated. "If us opening up this chamber brings the Dragon King back, it's our fault. Tell them I'll take the blame. I'll make sure the village is safe."

As the guide translated his words, the two dragon-men holding Ellie and Kora started to laugh.

Hellboy lowered his head, staring up at them with the light on his filed-down horns and dark shadows under his eyes. He let anger fill him. If not for the innocent people in that chamber, he'd already have brought the roof down on these guys.

"Tell them I don't need to sleep, but that I bet they do. I'm between them and the only way out, and if they try to get past me with Kora, I'll break them into pieces. And if they fall asleep, I'll break them into pieces. And if we're still talking about this thirty seconds from now, I'll break them into pieces."

Tenzin translated quickly, shooting worried glances at Hellboy. Ellie looked pretty concerned as well. Kora, though, seemed at last to be listening to precisely what he was saying, and a kind of peace had come over her.

"They won't kill the girl," Tenzin whispered--as though they might be able to understand English, "but they could still kill the woman."

Ellie's mouth gaped. She had good hearing.

"They won't," Hellboy said. "Appearances aside, they didn't come here to kill, or to die. Even Kora, they weren't thinking about killing. They were gonna throw her in the lake and wait for the Dragon King to come up and claim her. They killed to get the job done."

Hellboy didn't bother to add that he'd just made it clear to them that there was no way to get the job done. No exit.

Koh let out a breath and moved to the end of the altar, putting his hands on the stone. He turned and asked Hellboy something, and though his flesh had not changed, there was fire in his eyes.

"What's that?"

"They're afraid you'll kill them anyway if they let the girl and the woman go," Tenzin said.

Hellboy shook his head. He thought about the BPRD trying to hold a couple of shape-shifting dragon-men in their custody for the duration of the case, then trying to get them extradited to face charges in the U.K. or the U.S. Even if that were possible--which he wasn't sure about--trying to keep them prisoner here at the camp would be dangerous and difficult, and probably foolhardy. The rest of the village would probably come down and try to break them out, and the bloodshed then would be far worse than what had already happened.

"I don't work that way," he said. "But when this is all done, they're going to face charges for what they've done, either under whatever the local laws are or under international law."

He hoped Stasia and his father understood.

When Tenzin translated, Koh twisted toward Hellboy in a fury, hissing, and the dragon came out in him. His jaws extended, his flesh became yellow-red and rough as scales, and he sneered something.

"Oh, my Lord," Ellie gasped, when she realized Koh was one of them.

Kora cursed in words eleven-year-old girls wouldn't want their fathers to know they knew.

"He says you killed several people in his village this morning. This only makes you even," Tenzin said warily, taking a step back and reaching for a long knife that hung from his belt.

Hellboy raised a hand to calm him and stared hard at Koh.

"We were under attack. That was a misunderstanding. We didn't know we were going into their burial ground. We were looking for the girl, and they tried to kill us. What happened here, what they did to the two outside and to Dr. Conrad over there...that's murder."