When the professor had finished, Lao barked orders at his men. All of their calm dissipated, and they scrambled to obey, taking their places behind what cover they had found--tumbled-down rocks and ditches dug with the help of the few members of the archaeological team--with assault rifles, rocket launchers, and the other weapons the pilots had brought back from Lhasa. Lao followed his commandos to their posts, issuing further orders, still looking like nothing so much as a dour businessman or politician.
Abe watched them, glancing at the water every few moments, even as Professor Bruttenholm dipped his finger into the ocher paint he'd mixed in a small tin bowl. The old man began to trace the same sigils upon his own face.
"When I'm through, Abe, I'd like you to check my handiwork and make certain I've done the work properly. I haven't a mirror."
"Of course, Professor."
"You're certain you don't want me to paint you with the ward as well?"
Abe cocked his head, scrutinizing the man's work. The sigils looked perfectly fine to him. "I'll be in the chopper with Redfield. There'll be no hiding a helicopter from the dragon. Whether it can see us inside won't matter very much."
"True enough," the old man said, finishing the lines around his eyes and dipping his finger into the paint again.
"Do you really think this will work?" Abe asked.
Professor Bruttenholm frowned, brow wrinkling.
"With the proper incantation, which I've recited, these sigils ought to make anyone temporarily invisible to the senses of the dragons."
A chill mountain wind blew across the plateau, momentarily eclipsing the heat emanating from the lake and stirring the steam above the water. Abe glanced around, unable to escape the dreadful knowledge that they were woefully unprepared.
"When do you think our reinforcements will arrive?" he asked.
Professor Bruttenholm glanced at the southwestern sky as if expecting a phalanx of helicopters to appear at that very moment. "I wish I knew. We've got to presume that we're on our own, at least for tonight. If the Dragon King will only stay submerged another day, our odds will be much improved."
Abe frowned. Without a child sacrifice, he doubted the Dragon King would content itself to remain under the lake. Kora Kyichu had been taken away to Lhasa with the other evacuees, and half the complement of Mr. Lao's commandos were in Nakchu village, keeping the survivors of the dragon burning there captive. That might not save them from a return of the dragon, but it ought to keep any of the dragon-men from returning to Lake Tashi to sacrifice one of their own children.
The Dragon King had not been appeased. The fire beneath the lake provided proof enough of that.
"What of Professor Kyichu and the others from the dig?" he asked.
A troubled expression crossed Professor Bruttenholm's features. "They're digging, believe it or not. Kyichu has them attempting to excavate the preparatory chamber for the third time to retrieve the bodies of their colleagues buried there. An admirable effort, but damned foolhardy timing."
"They're not going to fight off the dragon with shovels," Abe said, shaking his head in wonder. "What about the wards? Have you painted their faces yet?"
Weighted with regret, the professor glanced up at the ridge where the ruins of the city of the Dragon King had been ravaged. "Professor Kyichu was the first person I approached. He declined the offer of the protective ward."
Bruttenholm gave a sad laugh. "Apparently, he doesn't believe in magic."
Abe stared at him in horror. Professor Kyichu, Corriveau, and Gibson were as good as dead if the Dragon King set his sights on them.
"All we can do is our best, Abe," Professor Bruttenholm said, laying a paternal hand on his shoulder. "It is always hardest to save people from themselves."
A dusting of rock and loose soil slid down the hill behind them. Abe glanced up to see Neil Pinborough clambering toward them. The agent dropped the last seven or eight feet and landed in a crouch. In the dark, he seemed made of the night. Across his back were slung a long bow of simple design and a leather quiver containing perhaps half a dozen arrows of similar rustic quality.
"You spoke to them?" Professor Bruttenholm asked.
Pinborough nodded. "If the worm comes back, they're not going to sit about and wait to die with Kyichu. They'll be right along."
The old man sighed. "Foolish, even so. They ought not to wait. They should come now."
Abe cocked his head again and stared at the professor in admiration. He'd had Pinborough talking to Corriveau and Gibson behind Professor Kyichu's back and didn't even think to mention it.
"They're being careful," Abe said. "If Kyichu's gamble pays off without getting them killed, they'll be able to take credit for helping him save the dig."
"Silly sods," Pinborough muttered.
"Agreed," Professor Bruttenholm replied.
Abe studied Pinborough's bow. "What do you plan to do with that? If the guns aren't going to help--"
"One of the little treasures we brought along at the start of this whole mess," Pinborough replied, glancing at Professor Bruttenholm before looking back to Abe. "The brief indicated something to do with dragons, but really, we had no idea what we'd be up against, so we threw a few things into our kit. Ancient Chinese alchemist named Gui Xian--said he was immortal, but time proved him wrong--made a compound that would turn anything it touched to silver. One of his enemies took his spells and put them to new use, made these arrows, tipped with the compound, and killed him with one."
Abe stared at him. "You did see the size of the Dragon King?"
Pinborough shrugged. "We use what's on hand."
"True enough," Abe replied. He'd grown to like Neil Pinborough. The man had been trained to be brutal, but it didn't seem to have gotten into his psyche as much as it had with Meaney.
"Abe," Professor Bruttenholm said. His voice had gone cold.
Filled with dread, Abe followed the professor's gaze to the lake. The water had begun to churn, perhaps even to boil. In places, the surface seemed to be on fire.
"Choppers!" Pinborough shouted.
"Watch yourselves," Professor Bruttenholm said.
Abe called to him to do the same, already in motion. He and Pinborough ran side by side. Abe shouted to Redfield and Lao's pilot, whipping his arm in the air in a signal for them to get the rotors turning. He could only imagine how exhausted both pilots must have been given the flights they'd made back and forth to Lhasa in the past day and a half. But both men were alert.
The rotors came to life, whipping the air.
Abe and Pinborough ducked low and rushed to the helicopters. Each had the electrified nets attached to their undercarriages. Pinborough reached the black chopper and jumped into the back. Each chopper had only a pilot and a single one of Lao's commandos, plus one BPRD agent. Abe hauled himself into the back of Redfield's helicopter. The bearded pilot didn't even wait for him to slide the door closed before bringing them aloft.
The black-clad commando beside Abe muttered something in Chinese and gripped his assault rifle in both hands like a security blanket. Abe wanted to tell him it wouldn't provide any security, but he didn't speak Chinese. Plus, he'd been touching his own pistol like a lucky charm, so he couldn't really talk.
As they rose into the air--the other chopper taking flight beside them--the lake erupted with fire and water in a replay of the previous night's explosion. Yellow scales glowed in the firelight. The lake water mixed with the falling rain and showered back down again.
The Dragon King slithered into the sky.
Lao's commandos attacked immediately. Surface-to-air missiles whisked from their ground positions and seared across the sky. Two struck the huge worm in quick succession, one striking its long, whipping tail and glancing harmlessly away. The second embedded itself into the red scales of the dragon's belly and exploded in a small burst of flesh and scale and blood.
The Dragon King screamed, not in pain, but in fury. It thrashed in the air, throwing its antlered head back as though trying to buck a rider. Flames erupted from its gullet and sprayed the dark, cloudy night sky.
"Redfield, move it!" Abe cried. "This may be our only shot!"
"I'm on it!" the pilot barked.
The commando chopper rose to the west. Redfield navigated east, riding an updraft. In seconds, both of the helicopters were above the Dragon King. It twisted in the air, barely paying any attention to them. The great serpent seemed to be searching for something. Another missile hit its ridged back, but it exploded without doing any real damage. That was when Abe understood that Professor Bruttenholm's wards were working. The dragon couldn't see the professor, Lao, or his commandos on the ground.
A fresh gout of fire bursting from its nostrils, the Dragon King whipped its head around to glare at the ridge where the excavation had been. Abe cursed aloud. It had sensed, smelled, or seen someone up there on the ridge. Kyichu would still be hiding, but now Abe realized that it had been a huge mistake for Pinborough to ask Corriveau and Gibson to run for the professor's help when the dragon appeared.
"Hurry! It's seen them!" Abe shouted.
Redfield gritted his teeth but didn't reply. The Chinese commando said nothing. The pilot pulled the stick, and the chopper rose higher.
"Get ready!" Redfield called.
Abe took a breath, grabbed the door on his side, and glanced over to see his commando partner do the same. The commando nodded and simultaneously they slid open the doors. Abe could barely breathe. The altitude of the plateau itself was high enough to thin the air, but they were much higher now. He worried how high the chopper could go before it ran out of airspace, before the air wouldn't hold them aloft anymore, and then he chided himself for worrying about things he couldn't control.
"Set?" Redfield called back.
"Wait!" Abe replied, dropping to the floor of the chopper. He reached an arm out, searched with his hand and found the release that'd been jury-rigged to the undercarriage. Halfway down would release the first net. All the way would release the second.
Abe glanced back at the commando and saw that he was in position as well. The two levers had to be released at precisely the same time if they wanted to be on target with the net. The thing would electrify the second that something pulled against it, trying to break free.
"Set!" Abe called.
As he glanced back out into the rainy night above Lake Tashi, he saw the other chopper release its first net. He thought he could see Pinborough and a commando in the back, lying down just like him. The net seemed almost to float on the air, like a man-o'-war on the water. But it caught the lower half of the Dragon King's body and tangled around the beast instantly. The worm tried to rake it off with the eagle talons of its rear legs, and the moment it did so, the entire net sizzled and smoked.
Again, the dragon bucked at the air and screamed. The fire that gouted from its maw burned past the helicopter. Redfield shouted and jerked the stick to the left. Seconds later, they were hovering just above the Dragon King in the air.
"Now!" Redfield shouted.
Abe pressed the lever halfway with a loud clank, and the first net dropped away. It landed on the Dragon King's head, strung like cobwebs in its antlers. The sizzling and smoking began again, and the Dragon King kept screaming and bucking.
The other chopper started to maneuver to get back into place. Abe saw Neil Pinborough kneeling just inside the open side door of the combat helicopter. He was shouting something, probably telling the pilot to hold her steady, and he had the bow in his hands. Quickly, he drew from the quiver one of the arrows that had killed Gui Xian and nocked it.
Even as the two helicopters danced away from one another, Abe caught one last glimpse of Pinborough loosing the arrow. He could barely track its flight, but then saw a black streak across one of the dragon's eyes. The arrow struck the gigantic, writhing sky serpent, and it squealed with a pain Abe had not heard from it before.
The dragon's left eye turned to silver.
It thrashed in pain and fury, tearing the electrified nets, reaching up to claw at its dead, silver eye. With a roar, it opened its jaws and spewed fire in a wide arc that caught the other helicopter in a tidal wave of flames.
Abe shouted some denial of what his eyes had seen. In the open rear compartment of the chopper, Pinborough and the commando were ablaze like some wicker effigies of men.
Then the chopper's fuel tank exploded. A conflagration of flame and metal careened from the sky and crashed into the steep mountain slope to the south of the lake.
Abe stared in horror. The dragon tore free of the net that covered the lower half of its body, and the entire length of the serpent whipped the air. It struck the tail of the chopper, dashing it from the sky.
Metal tore. Redfield swore as he tried to get the helicopter under control, but it hurtled toward the lake.
The chopper spun away from him, and he tumbled end over end, down into the steaming, searing, sulfurous waters of Lake Tashi. He plunged into the water. The heat embraced him, and Abe cried out soundlessly as it rushed through his gills.
The impact had dulled his thoughts. He hung there, swaying in the water like a dead man, sure that the dragon's fire would boil him alive.
His vision blurred. Darkness encroached at the corners of his eyes. Then he saw something moving in the water. Small and gray-blue, translucent and swift. This was no dragon.
Barely conscious, he tried to focus his eyes...and saw the ghost of a child staring back at him. The girl smiled sweetly and waved at him as though they'd passed one another on the street. The spirit reached out and touched him, and Abe felt an electric jolt that brought him fully awake.
The little girl's ghost wasn't alone. Behind her were two boys, gray-blue shades of death, perfect and beautiful and innocent. Farther back in the water that still glowed with dragon fire from the depths of the lake, he saw so many others. Dozens. Perhaps hundreds. The children of the Nyenchen Tanghla mountain range.
And he knew.
These were the ghosts of all of those children who had been sacrificed to the Dragon King. Lost souls, lingering, waiting in this world for someone to release them at last, to destroy the worm.