"Who do you think--" the professor began.

"Shut your gob, you bloody git!" Anastasia roared at him, knowing she sounded like some nutter in the stands at a football match, and not caring.

Applause sounded behind her. She spun to see Corriveau and Gibson clapping for her.

"Well done, you," Gibson cheered.

She ignored them, and turned to watch Hellboy and Dwenjue. They were all behaving as though the worst was over, but for Anastasia, the worst had just begun.

Koh left Dwenjue and the demon behind and raced toward the temple of the Dragon King. This close, his transformation had somehow been affected. He felt more the dragon than ever. Liquid fire burbled in his throat and flickered from his nostrils. He crouched low to the ground as he ran, and in the back of his mind was the fanciful idea that if he could just let go of his humanity, he might take to the air and fly like his ancestors.

But that was something that Koh would never do. He might not be entirely human, but within him existed enough spirit to feel hatred toward the Dragon King and all of his servants. They were the scourge of humanity, and of the children of Nakchu village. No more would die. Koh would stand with the humans and the strange beings that had come with them and see the Dragon King destroyed, or die himself.

Within the tall windows of the temple he could see the resurrected dragons moving like worms driven up from the earth by heavy rains. They burned with internal fire, casting hideous shadows. Koh hurried toward the nearest window and paused to gauge the height of the frame, wondering if he could jump and grab hold to pull himself in.

The whump-whump of helicopter rotors filled the air above him, driving the air down, pummeling him with it. As he spun, the helicopter set down on the island, fifty feet from Koh. The side door had been opened, and through it he could see the strange fish-man the others called Abe grabbing hold of the barrels of a pair of heavy, wide-mouthed guns and pushing them upward to prevent the soldiers within from firing at Koh. Abe shouted at them until they had all put up their weapons.

Then the fish-man signaled for the soldiers to follow him and jumped out of the helicopter. They followed, leaping to the ground and running across the stone toward him.

A flash of fire glinted in the corner of Koh's eye, and he turned to see one of the burning dragons slither from a window. It darted toward the soldiers and Abe, who didn't seem to have noticed it over the chop of the helicopter blades.

Koh shouted, knowing they would not understand him. He ran at Abe, pointing at the dragon as it arced down at them, fire beginning to erupt from its maw. Only then did the soldiers turn. They raised their weapons and several of them fired. With loud pops, dark projectiles burst from the barrels and struck the dragon, even as fire started to fall. Koh reached Abe, grabbed the fish-man, and twisted around so that the flames cascaded across his own back. Where the fire struck, his clothes incinerated, but he kept Abe safe.

The dragon fell, its internal flame extinguished, and shattered into huge shards of ice-crusted, dead flesh. One soldier cried out as he burned, but the others were far enough back that the dragon fire never reached them.

Koh's clothes were smoking and still burning in places. He tore the remnants of his shirt off. The soldiers stared at him--at his scaly flesh and fiery eyes--and he knew they had to resist the urge to kill him as well. They saw only the dragon in him, not the man.

Abe clapped him on the shoulder and said something that Koh presumed was gratitude. Yet even the fish-man wore a dubious expression that Koh had no trouble reading. Why are you doing this? that expression said. Even if he'd been able to speak the fish-man's language, he was not sure he would have tried to explain. Was it so hard for Abe to understand that the village of Nakchu had been peaceful before all of this, that they were not savage people? All Koh and his father and the rest of his kin had wanted was to be left alone.

Or perhaps Abe had trouble understanding why Koh would help after what had happened to his village. If they survived this night, he would explain to the fish-man that--though the archaeologists had disturbed the Dragon King--they were not responsible for what the great ancestor had done to Nakchu.

Regardless of whether his motives were understood, though, Koh would fight at the side of these intruders. Once upon a time, the whole mountain range had lived in terror of the Dragon King. Koh was not going to let that happen again.

Two soldiers were tending to the one who had fallen. Another helicopter was landing, disgorging more troops, all armed with the same weapons that were freezing the dragons from the inside. Miraculous, terrible things.

Abe picked up the fallen soldier's weapon and looked at Koh. He gestured toward the temple, and Koh nodded.

Side by side, they ran along the front of the temple until they found a window low enough to leap to. Another dragon emerged, but the soldiers were ready this time, and they all had to stand aside to avoid being struck by its frozen corpse as it fell. Then they were all up and inside the temple, and the ancient dragons swarmed within, burning, fluttering with fire.

The weapons boomed.

One of them lunged at Koh, and he ran straight toward it and leaped, claws and jaws tearing into flesh and fire.

Hellboy didn't bother with the gun. It wasn't going to do him a damn bit of good. He flexed the fingers of his right hand, the only weapon that he knew he could rely on. Maybe the guys in the choppers could fill the Dragon King full of liquid nitrogen, but he didn't think the pilots could get close enough for enough direct hits on the gigantic worm's belly or mouth to take it down, and no way were those grenades going to puncture its hide anywhere else.

No, this thing had to be up close and personal. That worked fine for Hellboy, and he figured Dwenjue wouldn't have it any other way.

Heat rose up from the lake and blew out of the temple on the wind, buffeting them where they stood on the rocky ledge of that island. In the sky only a handful of the smaller dragons remained, but far above them all, the Dragon King whipped through the air, twisting in upon itself. The fire that guttered from its maw and eyes streaked along beside its coiling body.

It prowled the night sky like a predator, considering what it wanted to kill next.

Dwenjue held his sword before him, point straight up--so much taller than he was--and chanted in a low, nasal cadence. The yellow light that emanated from the mystic blade grew brighter, so that Hellboy had to squint to look down at the dwarf monk. Dwenjue did not return his gaze. The ancient warrior only glared up at the darkness, at the vanishing storm clouds and the celestial ebony beyond, and performed that incantation.

A ripple of light ran up the length of the sword. In that moment, Hellboy felt a pulse of some kind emanate from the blade--power, energy, magic.

In the sky, the Dragon King ceased its coiling. It darted across the air far above the lake, nearly to the southern ridge that had once been the shore, and turned around. Dwenjue broke off his chant and glanced at Hellboy, muttering some warning. But Hellboy did not need to be warned. Somehow, the sword had drawn its attention, and now the Dragon King swept down toward them--coming for them. One of its eyes burned with fire, but the other glinted silver in the moonlight.

He risked a quick look at Dwenjue and saw the anticipation on the ancient one's face. Hellboy understood. The monk had started a job many centuries ago and never finished it. Maybe he wouldn't have been able to finish it on his own--Hellboy figured either one of them, alone, might not have been able to do the job. But this time, Dwenjue had help. One way or the other, this was the warrior's second chance, and there wouldn't be a third.

The Dragon King slithered down from the sky. The size of the thing, up close, made Hellboy catch his breath. It dropped toward them, a hundred feet away, then seventy, then forty, and it opened its jaws wide. The wind of its momentum sucked some of the fire from its gullet, but Hellboy stared into the inferno of its throat, and he braced himself for the pain to come.

Dwenjue held his mystic blade up in front of him and did not move.

The Dragon King shook its antlers like a bull about to charge, then it straightened out. Bright red-and-yellow flames erupted from the dragon's maw with such force that it burned the air that separated it from them--the distance from the worm to the ground.

Hellboy set his hooves firmly, and the fire engulfed him, blasting around him, scorching the clothes from his body. He grunted in pain as the flames seared him, but his flesh did not char or burn. The ammunition in the gun at his hip exploded and knocked him sideways, nearly causing him to lose his balance. He shouted in surprise and pain. Dressed only in burning rags, he crouched and readied himself.

Dwenjue held up his blade, and the flames washed around him, as though some invisible shield protected him. The fire swept past him like a river around a large stone in its midst. Hellboy kept glancing at him, waiting for him to do something, but the warrior only stood there, motionless, blade in his hands.

Then the dragon was upon them. Hellboy couldn't wait for Dwenjue any longer. The Dragon King darted its head down, jaws wide, the fire ceasing as it tried to snap them up in its teeth.

Hellboy sprang with all of his strength, crimson flesh smoking with the heat of the dragon fire, the last tatters of his clothing still burning. He slammed one hoof down onto the giant worm's skull and reached out for the Dragon King's antlers. His hands clutched at them, but he missed and instead slammed into the tangle of sharp antlers. The impact knocked the breath from him, but he managed to get a grip on one of the bony protrusions, the size of a small tree.

As he did, he glanced down and saw the Dragon King snatch Dwenjue up in its jaws.

The dragon lanced skyward, shaking its head back and forth as its jaws worked on chewing the dwarf monk and swallowing him. Hellboy swore loudly as he tried desperately to hold on to the bucking, thrashing, coiling dragon. It twisted, even as it flew higher and higher. Fire gusted from its eyes, but he ignored it, using all of his strength just to hang on.

What had Dwenjue been thinking? Did he want to rest so badly that he'd just let the Dragon King eat him? No. No way. Hellboy had seen the intensity in the warrior's face when he'd talked about his destiny. Getting himself down the dragon's throat might not be the smartest move ever, but Hellboy had to believe that Dwenjue had some kind of clever scheme in mind.

Meanwhile, Hellboy's plan was not to die. At the moment, his focus was how to bring the Dragon King down without getting killed himself. They were high. As the worm slithered across the sky, Hellboy glanced down, but he could barely make out the soldiers near the helicopters that had landed beside the temple. The choppers in the air were visible. He scanned the original lakeshore, but the dragon whipped him around so fast he couldn't catch a glimpse of the camp where Stasia and the others were.

The Dragon King rolled.

"Son of a bitch!" Hellboy roared.

He held on tightly as his legs dangled beneath him. A second later the worm righted itself, then snaked across the sky back toward the temple...and a black chopper headed their way.

"No," Hellboy said, the wind sucking away his words. "Don't be stupid."

Too late. He didn't know if it was a BPRD chopper or the Chinese military, but the Dragon King opened its jaws, and fire strafed the helicopter in huge gusts. The chopper blew backward, spinning out of control, bathed in fire that was almost liquid. Then it exploded.

"That's it!" Hellboy shouted.

Forget about the distance to the ground and forget about falling and forget about waiting for Dwenjue to do something. As far as Hellboy knew, the little monk had already been digested.

"No more burning!" he bellowed, and he punctuated each word with a sledgehammer blow from his stony right fist. "No more villages! No more worship! And no more dead kids!"

With each blow, the Dragon King flinched, and jerked, and tried to twist away from his assault. But Hellboy wasn't going anywhere. He struck the worm's skull over and over, felt bone and thick hide and scale giving way as he hammered at it. Blood began to leak from the corner of the Dragon King's intact eye, and finally Hellboy knew he had done some damage.

The gigantic sky serpent began to glide lower.

Hellboy held on tightly to one antler with his left hand and shouted with the effort as, with that oversize right, he cracked off a prong from the other antler. The Dragon King darted downward. Hellboy slid down, clutching the antler between his left arm and chest, barely hanging on. He raised the broken prong, and, with all the strength he could muster, he drove it through the skull of the Dragon King.

Fire erupted from its maw in a scream. Its body twisted and whipped in the air. It soared downward, no longer gliding but crashing. The Dragon King speared toward the rocky hills to the west of Lake Tashi, the foothills of the mountains, one hundred feet of streaming fire and scales.

It struck the ground at an angle, tearing up the earth as its huge body tangled up in itself, twisting and careening across ridges and rocks. Hellboy tried to hang on to the Dragon King's antlers, but the worm's head canted sideways, prongs stuck in hard earth, and the resultant snapping of the dragon's body bucked him away. He tumbled through the air, end over end, slamming to the ground twenty feet away, flipping several times; and then he came to rest on the slope of a low hill.

Darkness dragged him down.

Hellboy's eyes snapped open, and he drew a deep, ragged breath, blinking and looking around. His body ached as though he'd been beaten by a gang of trolls carrying baseball bats, which he'd experienced once firsthand. A spike of pain went down the back of his neck as he started to rise, and then full awareness returned, and he cursed under his breath and glanced around, expecting to be burned or eaten.

No attack came. The Dragon King lay unmoving, its length contorted in a sprawl all along the hillside that had once been the western rim of Lake Tashi.

Grunting in annoyance at the bruises he'd acquired in the crash, Hellboy stared warily at the still form of the dragon. It couldn't be dead. That much he knew. Maybe it had been injured enough to go into some kind of catatonic state, or revert to whatever weird undeath it had existed in before the preparatory chamber had been opened, stirring its consciousness to wakefulness. But no way would he take anything for granted.