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Dark mists swirled around Darek as he made his way up a narrow pass into the Black Mountains of Krad. Rowena, daughter of the Zorian Chief Elder, followed a few steps behind. The mist felt damp against Darek's skin, and the stench of it made him gag. It smelled like rotted burning flesh, and that worried him.
Darek heard a cough and looked back over his shoulder.
"Are you all right?" he asked.
"Yes." Rowena nodded. "I'm getting tired, though. My eyes sting, and it's hard to breathe."
"Shall we rest awhile?" Darek asked.
"No. Pola and Zantor may be in danger. We've got to keep going."
Darek nodded. He could hear the mind cries, too. His dragon friend, Zantor, was sending messages of distress. Zantor and Darek's best friend, Pola, had disappeared into the Black Mountains more than a week ago. They and three other Great Blue dragonlings had been carried off by a runaway wagon. Darek and Rowena felt responsible. They had been jealous of each other and had quarreled over Zantor. As a result, the Chief Elder had ordered his men to capture another dragonling for Rowena. While on the dragon quest, Pola, Zantor, and the others had been lost.
Rowena coughed again and gasped for air.
"Pull your collar up over your mouth and nose, Darek said. "The cloth will filter some of the smoke."
Strange shapes loomed out of the mist. Black rocks, like cinders, dotted their path. All of Darek's senses were alert, keen to the dangers that might assail them at any moment.
"I wonder what our families will think when they wake this morning and find us gone," he said quietly.
Rowena didn't answer right away.
"We must not think of that", she said at last. "We must dream of the day when we return with Pola and the dragons."
Darek wished he could be sure that day would come, but he could not. No one had ever returned from the Black Mountains of Krad. For centuries now, it had been forbidden even to venture into them. What would his parents and his older brother, Clep, think when they realized where he had gone? He could see his mother's tearstained face now.
We will find a way back, Mother, he promised silently.
"Did you hear that?" Rowena suddenly cried out.
Darek stopped and listened. He thought he heard a soft scuffling sound, but when he peered into the mist, all he could make out were strange, twisted rock forms and the stumps of long-dead trees. "I don't see anything," he whispered.
'No, Rowena said. "I guess not." She put her hand to her forehead and moaned softly. "Ooohh," she said. "My head and stomach ache."
Darek's head hurt, too. Could the very mists be poisonous? he wondered.
"We're almost to the peak," he told Rowena. "It will be easier going down the other side. We won't have to breathe as hard."
The ground beneath them leveled off at long last, and they started to descend. Darek began to move with greater caution. If something or someone was waiting below, he wanted to see it before it saw him. His headache was worse, making it harder and harder to think. Behind him, he heard Rowena moan once more.
"Are you sure you're all right?" he asked again.
"Yes, she said, but her voice trembled.
Darek's worry deepened. He had to get her out of the mountains quickly. "Can you walk any faster?" he asked.
"I I don't know. I can't even think straight."
Darek turned. Rowena's skin was very pale, and her lips looked blue.
"Lean on me" he said.
Rowena gladly took his arm, and they struggled on together. Darek shook his head. It felt as if the mist were seeping into his mind. Minutes seemed to drag by. Rowena was leaning on him more and more heavily.
"Is it much farther?" she asked weakly.
"No, not much. See, the mist is thinning."
"Good, because I don't feel...ooohh." Rowena suddenly pushed Darek aside, clapped a hand over her mouth, and started to run.
Darek stumbled on a cinder and fell. "Rowena, wait!" he cried. He scrambled to his feet again, but before he could catch her, Rowena disappeared into the mist.
"Rowena!" he called, but there was no reply, only a distant retching sound.
Then, suddenly, there was a scream.
Dragons of Krad copyright © 1997 by Jackie French Koller