Almost immediately, Zoltar lost sight of the beach as the mist swallowed him up. He could hear Emerald and Shiraku behind him, but could just make out their outlines. Emerald was a solid grey color and Zoltar was reminded of the reason she was so scared of the maze. Without her camouflaging abilities and with her venom useless against the Death Grippers, she was helpless.
He motioned for Felistia to drop back as Emerald glided in beside him. Anything could jump out at them in this mist and with the visibility so poor, he needed her near him.
The dark ocean was still as crystal under their wings, not a ripple disturbed the perfect surface. Columns of rock appeared out of nowhere and Zoltar had to swerve violently to avoid flying into them. Their wing beats seemed far too loud and appeared to echo out into the mist.
Zoltar glanced behind him. Everything was draped in a thick white coat. It would be so easy to get turned around in this haze and with the light of day almost gone the mist seemed more like shifting shadows against the dark outlines of the pillars. For a moment, Zoltar wondered what it must be like for the others to fly in this. He had night vision and was finding it hard to keep in the right direction. They must be struggling.
“Not much longer now,” Zoltar called quietly over his wing, try to reassure them. He was going on instinct as to how long they’d been flying, but he knew they still had a lot of ground to cover.
Emerald nodded and passed it on to Felistia and Shiraku. Shiraku was strangely quiet and her glowing golden eyes kept darted from the still water below to Zoltar and back again. Nothing broke the deathly silence hanging over them.
Emerald’s scales were ash grey and shimmered slightly in the dim light sifting through the swirling mist. Her eyes were wide with terror and she was shaking slightly.
“It’s alright Emerald, I won’t let anything hurt you. If they try anything I’ll rip them to shreds and feed them to the fishes,” Zoltar growled, trying to ease Emerald's fear.
“Thanks Zoltar,” Emerald replied weakly, scanning the pillars with wild eyes.
Zoltar followed her gaze and stopped on something clinging to a far column. It was hard to spot in the haze, but as they neared there was no doubt about it, there was something there. He felt Emerald stiffen, she must have seen it too.
“It’s a Death Gripper,” she gasped, faltering in the air, “I just know it is.”
Zoltar hated to admit it, but what else could it be. Claws of fear gripped his chest and an urge to flee raced through his veins. 'No. Not this time,' Zoltar shook himself.
He glanced back at the three dragons behind him. These dragons were his friends and probably the only ones he'd ever have. They'd be helpless if he left them now and even if they did make it through the maze, they'd never trust him again. No. He had to stay with them and lead them through the mist like he’d promised.
“I don’t think it’s spotted us yet. If we fly around it I think we might be able to escape unnoticed,” Zoltar whispered to Emerald who looked quite pale with fright. He glanced at the others behind him and raised a talon to his mouth, motioning to be silent.
For a second Zoltar thought they hadn’t seen him, but then they nodded their heads and flew closer to him, almost gliding their wings beats were so small. Silent as ghosts the four dragons floated past the still figure.
Zoltar’s heart was in his throat as he drifted through the air all the while keeping a close eye on the Death Gripper. The creature wasn’t like the Shang Fu he’d fought a few days earlier. This creature was pitch black with a long serpent like body coiled around the pillar it was resting on. Its razor sharp talons hooked into the rough rock face as it scanned its surroundings, it’s glowing red eyes piercing through the darkness.
Zoltar shivered, but kept going. They were almost out of danger.
Suddenly the Death Gripper snapped its head in their direction. Its crimson eyes burning holes through the mist like search lights. A low growl escaped its fanged jaws, echoing through the gloom.
“Get behind a pillar,” Zoltar hissed, his voice ringing with urgency. Everyone obeyed instantly, scrambling as quietly as possible for shelter. They ducked behind a large column and held their breath, clinging to the rock with trembling claws.
Zoltar’s heart drummed in his ears as he crouched out of view. Emerald looked like she was about to pass out with fright.
“Why don’t we attack it? There’s only one of them,” Shiraku hissed, peeping out from behind the pillar. Her eyes were gleaming with excitement and her tail was lashing back and forth like a whip.
“No,” Zoltar growled almost hysterically, snatching her back, “That’s a lookout. One howl from that thing and the whole pack will come running. We have to wait for him to look the other way, then we’ll keep moving.”
Shiraku fell silent, but her constant twitching and muttering told Zoltar she wasn’t happy about it.
Zoltar peered around the rock face. The Death Gripper was still looking in their direction, huffing as it smelled the air around it. Flexing the small wings on its back, it sprang from one pillar to the next with frightening speed. Black saliva dripped from its sabers as it chattered its teeth in excitement.
Dread swept over Zoltar. It had caught their scent.
The Death Gripper bellowed a long, blood curdling howl. Other calls erupted all around them as other creatures responded. They were surrounded.
“We have to go. Now!” Zoltar yelled, all attempts at silence broken. It didn’t matter.
Springing from the pillar, he beat his wings, bolting through the maze. The others followed not far behind.
They had to get into open air before the pack caught them. He might have been able to fight one or even two, but from the sound of it there could be over twenty Death Grippers hunting them. Even with Felistia and Shiraku’s help, he’d be overwhelmed. Their only hope was the end of the maze.
Rabid screams filled the air as black shapes darted through the haze all around them. They were trying to cut off their escape.
“Hurry,” Zoltar roared, panting as he flew like he’d never flown before.
One of the winged reptiles darted in front of him, landing on a column just a few meters ahead. There was no time to change direction. Heat surged through Zoltar’s body as he prepared to shoot a fire ball.
For a moment Zoltar’s eyes met that of the Death Gripper as it launched towards him, fangs bared, talons spread wide.
Then a burst of white hot light filled the air and the Death Gripper was sent hurtling into the ocean with a deafening splash; steaming.
Just seconds later a fire ball shot from Zoltar’s mouth, careering through empty space. His heart was hammering against his ribs as he looked back at Shiraku. She gave him a quick smile, steam pouring from her jaws.
‘She saved me,’ Zoltar barely had time to register before another Death Gripper screamed out of the darkness into Emerald.
She screamed, spinning in the air in a desperate attempt to knock the creature off. It clung on, almost laughing with glee.
Rage and terror filled Zoltar. This couldn’t be happening. Twisting around, he streaked past Emerald, raking his talons through the Death Gripper’s exposed wings. A horrible ripping sound filled the air closely followed by the Death Gripper’s agonized shriek.
Felistia flashed past Zoltar, slamming her spiked tail into the Death Gripper’s side. With a gurgling scream the creature let go, falling to the sea.
“Go, go, go! “Zoltar yelled as he turned from his dive. The pack had dropped back for the moment, but they wouldn’t for long. This was their chance.
“Just a little longer Emerald. We’re nearly out. Just hold on,” Zoltar urged the Wisp Talon. Thick red blood dripped from wounded along her side, but she keep flying.
Finally, like the sun driving away the night’s shadows, the moon’s light cut through the mist as all four dragons burst from the maze and into the open night sky.