His hooves slipped on the grassy hill, so different from the rockier slopes to the north. Hellboy got his footing and continued on, crouched low, watching the motionless worm. This close and unmoving, its bulk seemed even more enormous. He picked up his pace, wanting to get to the head of the Dragon King to see if the fire still churned inside it, and to be at the spot where he thought he could do the most damage if it should suddenly awaken.
The Dragon King's body had been twisted around on impact, so that as he moved past it, yellow scales gave way to the softer red scales of its underbelly. Hellboy eyed the worm, and as he hurried, he gritted his teeth against the discomfort of his injuries.
The dragon twitched. Hellboy froze, twenty feet away, and stared at the spot on its red belly that had moved. It might have been involuntary, some kind of muscle pulse, but he didn't want to take any chances. He started walking again, hustling toward the massive head of the beast with its broken antlers. The prong he'd jammed through its softened skull still jutted there, black blood crusting around it.
Again, the belly twitched. Hellboy tensed.
Something punctured the Dragon King's red-scaled stomach from within. Coated in blood and viscera, still the tip of the mystic sword glistened in the light of the moon and stars that showed through the remnants of the storm clouds above.
As Hellboy watched, the blade tugged against the scaly flesh and began to slice. In a jerking, staggered motion, that mystic sword slit the Dragon King's belly open, exposing black blood and thick yellow fluid and releasing a stench of sulfur and rot that made Hellboy gag. He put a hand to his mouth as bile rose up the back of his throat and managed to avoid vomiting. He started breathing through his mouth, trying to diminish the smell.
The sword split the red scales, lengthening the split, steaming innards spilling out onto the tall grass. Seven feet. Twelve. Eighteen feet.
Then it ceased. The sword stopped moving, jerked once, then went completely still, lodged in the flesh of the dragon's gut.
"Crap," Hellboy muttered. The Dragon King hadn't moved at all while Dwenjue had been slicing it open. Whether that meant it was really dead or not, he didn't know, but he couldn't just leave Dwenjue in there.
Hellboy climbed up the hill to the Dragon King's gutted remains. The worm's body was so thick that on its side, it was taller than he was. The heat from its insides radiated outward as though he were standing much too close to a fire. He reached up and grabbed hold of the flaps of scaly flesh on either side of the slit that Dwenjue had cut in its belly and began to tear.
The dragon's underside tore with a wet, slippery noise, and more of that stink wafted out at him. Hellboy gagged but did not turn away. He took a better stance, improved his grip, and tore again, ripping another five of six feet of red scales in two.
Dwenjue spilled out with coils of the dragon's viscera, wet with its blood and bodily fluids, sword still clutched in his hands. The dwarf had never seemed so small as he did, lying there on the hillside, that sword so much longer than his own body.
The warrior monk's eyes fluttered open, mucuslike fluid gumming his eyelids together. Weakly, he spoke to Hellboy, gesturing with one hand back into the Dragon King's belly. The words did not register, but their meaning was evident. He'd been trying to get to something inside the dragon, trying to cut his way to revealing some vulnerable spot.
Dwenjue's eyes fluttered weakly. His flesh beneath the blood had been burned, but there were also blisters all over his skin and areas where the skin seemed to have been eaten away. He'd been partially digested in the Dragon King's belly.
"Don't worry, pal. We'll get you some help," Hellboy said. "But first, I'm guessing what you really need is to get this job done."
Hellboy reached down and took the sword from Dwenjue's hand. The dwarf released the blade to him, pain and hope alternating in his eyes. He said something else, his voice a rasp, but of course Hellboy could not understand him.
The mystic sword felt like ice in Hellboy's grip. He switched hands, and the moment he put the blade in his right hand, it began to glow once more with the vibrant yellow of Dwenjue's eyes.
A frown creased Hellboy's forehead. He glanced down and saw that the dwarf's eyes were now flat, ordinary black. Regret struck Hellboy, but he knew there could be no hesitation now. This thing hadn't turned out the way legends should, but he needed to get it done.
Leaving Dwenjue, he thrust the shining blade into the dragon's belly and put all of his strength into it, enlarging the slit that the monk had begun. The red scales blossomed apart. Hellboy dragged the sword up toward the dragon's head. As he did, he reached a place where the red scales became more difficult to cut. It took all of his strength to split the skin there, and when he did, nothing spilled out.
Inside, a small fire burned. The object was oval, more than a foot long, and it burned with red-and-yellow flames that somehow raged there without consuming the object itself. Hellboy stared a moment, thinking that if this thing still burned, the Dragon King couldn't truly be dead, no matter how much damage they did to it. This thing--this was what made it immortal, this eternal fire.
Then he knew what it was. The Dragon King's heart. It all made sense to him now. Dwenjue had been trying to reach the heart, to kill his ancient enemy once and for all.
Hellboy raised the sword. Its yellow glow became so bright he had to squint. He felt none of the deep satisfaction he would have imagined in killing this thing. It had to be stopped, but there were too few ancient things, too few legends still in the world, and there was a bitterness in its destruction.
"All over, now," he muttered.
He brought the sword down...but stopped himself before the blade could strike the burning heart of the dragon. Hellboy glanced back at Dwenjue, taking in the ruins of the warrior's face. The dwarf's body had been ravaged; he was dying.
This isn't how it's supposed to be, he thought. This legend isn't mine.
Grimly, Hellboy strode back to Dwenjue, reached down, and picked the diminutive monk up under his arm. He carried the ancient warrior back to the place where he had revealed the dragon's heart and set him down as gently as he could.
"Dwenjue," Hellboy said.
The monk blinked, gaze clearing a moment before he started to drift again. Hellboy shouted his name, and this time, the dwarf's eyes went wide, and his nostrils flared with anger or surprise.
Hellboy took his hands and closed them around the grip of the mystic sword that had rested with him in the ground for so many centuries. The glow diminished slightly, but as it did, Dwenjue's eyes took on their former yellow gleam.
"Up," Hellboy said, gripping him under the arms. He lifted the monk bodily and set him on his feet.
Dwenjue stumbled, nearly collapsed, but Hellboy caught him.
The sword pulsed with light and magic. Dwenjue stood up a bit straighter, still swaying but not about to fall. His back went rigid as he stared down at the burning heart of the dragon.
The sword fell. It flared yellow the instant it struck the Dragon King's heart. The fire went out of the worm's core, and it cleaved in half.
Dwenjue collapsed, sliding to the ground, then tumbling over onto his back. As he stared up at the night sky, the illumination went out of his eyes, and they turned black once more. A single, shuddering breath came from the warrior, and he fell still.
The ancient enemies lay dead, side by side.
Hellboy sat down beside Dwenjue, leaning against the dead Dragon King. He glanced at the sword still clutched in the monk's hand, but did not attempt to retrieve it. That blade belonged with Dwenjue and would return with him to his grave.
A strange satisfaction filled Hellboy, mixed with profound envy. He'd helped Dwenjue fulfill his destiny, and now the warrior could rest.
The word tasted bittersweet, even in his thoughts.
Upon the death of the Dragon King, those few of his dragonlings that had not already been killed simply ceased, the fire snuffed out within them. Their flesh became brittle, and within hours, had begun to decompose.
Now, the cleanup was under way.
Redfield had been medevacked to Lhasa along with other wounded. The last of Dr. Bransfield's team had been retrieved from the monastery on the eastern hill. Only three members of her original expedition had agreed to stay on with her at the site of the temple of the Dragon King. The British Museum would organize a new team. To everyone's surprise, Professor Kyichu had been on the first helicopter headed for Lhasa, determined to reunited with his daughter even as he nursed a dark bruise on his face.
According to the digger, Gibson, Dr. Bransfield had knocked some sense into him.
Meanwhile, Anastasia would see to it that the Chinese government would do nothing to hide or damage the dig site or attempt to deny the events that had transpired here.
Abe thought it evident that Lao would have liked to do just that, but there had been too many killed and too many international observers on the ground and in the air during the event. Barring the possibility of secrecy, however, Abe figured they would be working far more closely with the British Museum's efforts than they had before. Anastasia and Mr. Lao were going to be spending a great deal of time together. The BPRD would also be keeping a small team on-site for the duration of the archaeological efforts, in case anything else unusual came up and also as an impartial observer.
Crews would have to be brought in to remove the wreckage of the downed choppers. Someone would have to decide what to do with the corpse of the Dragon King. But those were all issues to be examined over the days ahead.
At the moment, only one issue remained on Abe's mind.
He stood with Koh and Tenzin in the scorched ruins of what had once been the archaeologists' camp. The sun had begun to rise, and it shone brightly up on the ridge where the preparatory chamber had twice been opened, and where digging would soon commence once more.
Not a trace of the dragon could be seen in Koh. They had all agreed it would be safer that way. He seemed like just an ordinary man, now.
Together, the three of them watched the argument going on between Professor Bruttenholm and Mr. Lao in the shadow of one of the black military helicopters that the man from Beijing had summoned. The normally emotionless Lao appeared angry. Bruttenholm, on the other hand, had fallen back on his English reserve. He kept his face expressionless, his chin slightly lifted, gazing at Lao with all the moral authority he could muster.
When Lao took a breath, the professor spoke calmly.
Lao stared at him for several long seconds, then threw up his hand and turned on one foot to march over to the helicopter and lift himself into the cockpit. He glared at Bruttenholm again as he slid on the communications headset, apparently needing to conference with his superiors, then slammed the door closed.
Professor Bruttenholm walked away as though the scene had not troubled him at all. He strode over to where Abe, Koh, and Tenzin awaited him.
"What did he say?" Abe asked.
The professor stroked his white goatee a moment in thought, then gave the smallest of shrugs. "He said that what happens to the people of Nakchu village is not our concern, that they are being detained while the question of whether or not they present a danger to humanity is evaluated."
Tenzin quickly translated this to Koh. Fire flickered in the dragon-man's eyes, and he sneered something in anger, jaw clenched.
Abe held up a hand to calm him, even as Tenzin put a hand on Koh's arm and spoke some words of comfort.
"And what was your reply?" Abe asked the professor.
Bruttenholm's eyes brightened and he arched an eyebrow. "I patiently explained that the people of Nakchu village have suffered a terrible loss and should be allowed to mourn, then left alone. Given their unique nature, I told Mister Lao that the villagers are most certainly the concern of the BPRD, and that if he disagreed, he could feel free to take it up with our United Nations sponsors. I told him that the BPRD agents who remain here with Dr. Bransfield will be visiting Nakchu several times a week and making regular reports, and that any attempt to interfere with those visits would be frowned upon by the world community."
As he spoke, Tenzin rattled off the translation to Koh, who began to smile. The dragon-man grabbed Professor Bruttenholm's hand and clasped it in gratitude.
"You're pretty good at this stuff," Abe told the old man.
Bruttenholm waved a hand. "The wisdom of age. And the bludgeon of diplomacy." The professor studied Tenzin and Koh a moment. "Have you had that conversation with Koh that we discussed?"
Abe nodded. "I have."
"He hasn't given me an answer."
Professor Bruttenholm studied the dragon-man. "Right, then. What do you think, Koh? Could I convince you to return to the States with us and work with our organization?"
Tenzin smiled and asked the question.
Koh stood up a bit straighter and replied with profound dignity.
"I'm sorry, Professor," Tenzin said. "Koh cannot leave the plateau. With his father dead, he knows that his people will need someone to lead them, to care for them. And he wishes to offer Dr. Bransfield as much help as he can in her efforts here at the temple."
Abe put out a hand, and Koh shook it, after the fashion he had observed among the other Westerners. "I'm sorry you won't be joining us," Abe said. "I'm honored to have met you, and I owe you one for saving my bacon down there."
Koh nodded, smiling.
"Ah, well," Professor Bruttenholm said. "All is as it should be, I suppose."
Hellboy and Anastasia stood on the stone island surrounding the temple of the Dragon King, bathed in the glow of the rising sun. Their hands were clasped between them, and he gazed at her with a terrible longing and a strange nostalgia. He knew he shouldn't feel nostalgic for someone who stood right in front of him, but could not help it. They'd come to the end of things, and yet it felt to him so much like a new beginning.
The aftermath unfolded all around them. Soldiers and BPRD agents worked inside the temple, careful not to damage the structure itself even as they checked to be certain all of the dragons were dead. Helicopters buzzed overhead. Not far away, Corriveau and Gibson, two of Stasia's team who'd agreed to stay with her in the interim, were taking photographs of the facade of the temple.