Newsletter exclusive - Fighting in the Fog
Below is a scene from Book 3 of The Tales of the Territories, The Dance of the Daggers. It's a turning point in the story when Jakob meets a Highlander named Duff. Enjoy!
Jakob had enjoyed a good bit of success that morning. Evading the Wraiths. Continuing to make his way to the south.
His approach had proven to be a good one. Nevertheless, staying ahead of the monsters in the mist was becoming more difficult just as he thought it would.
Because they, too, had implemented an effective strategy. One that was swiftly reducing his odds of escape.
Despite all that he had done to avoid a confrontation, he was certain that it wouldn’t be long before they located him.
He would have to fight.
Using the Talent, he identified the dim shadows of the Wraiths in the mist. He still had a good lead on them, and he had reached the far southern edge of the plateau.
But he didn’t believe that his current progress would be enough. The fog was still as thick as it was back near the heart trees. And he still had several leagues to go before he was free of the Murk.
More concerning, his hunters were no more than a few hundred yards behind him now, having closed the distance between them with an infuriating speed.
Worse, he was running out of space. He had no good way to exit the plateau on this side.
The hidden steppe ended in a drop of several hundred feet just a half mile further on. There were no paths or crevices like the one that he had used to reach this plateau from the larger one above.
He only had two choices now. Go back the way he had come and try to climb back to the plain above or continue toward the southwest to a small ridge that extended out from the steppe and well above another forest of heart trees that waited a few thousand feet below.
The first choice didn’t appeal to him. He doubted that he could make it back past the Wraiths without being discovered.
The other choice didn’t really appeal to him either, because all he was doing was giving the Wraiths what they wanted. He was allowing them to trap him against the edge of the cliff.
Of course, he didn’t really have much choice, did he? At least at the top of the ridge, Jakob would have a better chance of defending himself if the Wraiths found him.
When the Wraiths found him, he corrected, as he reached the beginnings of the slope that led to the top of the spine.
Better to be realistic regarding his chances.
He had gotten this far, so there was no point in stopping now. He dug his boots into the soft earth and grass and began to make his way up.
He could see thanks to the Talent that the Wraiths were moving much faster now, coming right at him. They had a good sense of where he was.
He increased his pace, knowing that he couldn’t afford to be caught on the slope.
That realization gave him an extra burst of energy as Jakob pulled himself to the top, using the rocks and long grass to help him. Instead of taking a moment to get a better idea of where he was and where the Wraiths were, he stayed low to the ground, ducking and rolling across the wet grass.
One of the Wraiths, likely the advance scout, almost ran right into him. The monster was just as surprised to see him there as he was to see the Wraith.
Yet, even with that momentary shock, the monster still had the wherewithal to swipe wildly for his throat with his three-foot-long double-bladed daggers.
Back on his feet in a flash, Jakob sprinted to the south for several dozen yards as if he were trying to flee. He then skidded to a stop and spun abruptly, pulling the daggers out of the sheaths on his hips and turning to face his adversary.
There was no point in trying to escape now. The Wraith was too fast. So Jakob used the only advantage that he had against this monster of the mist.
The Wraith was sprinting right at Jakob, never believing that his prey might have some bite. Not really thinking about his environment.
The Wraith slipped in the wet grass when he tried to stop himself from running right onto Jakob’s daggers. Forced to reach down with one arm so that he didn’t fall to the ground and potentially all the way back down the slope, the Wraith lost track of his target for just a heartbeat.
A costly error.
The Wraith felt a burn across his shoulder, a sharp blade slicing deeply into his flesh. And then again in his side, a painful stab into his lower back that just missed his spine.
Regaining his balance, though because of his wounds not without more of a struggle than he would have liked, the enraged Wraith hissed menacingly as he faced off against his prey. That anger was joined by an unexpected and unwanted trace of concern.
The boy should have been frightened, even terrified to stand against him. Unable to see him in the mist. Unable to defend himself.
But that didn’t seem to be the case at all.
Jakob stood calmly atop the ridge, well balanced, well positioned, his eyes never leaving the Wraith as he moved through the fog. Each time the Wraith tried the maneuver around him, Jakob shifted his positioning in response just a few feet to the left or right, unperturbed by the threat the monster presented.
Jakob watched the Wraith closely. He could tell by the monster’s hesitant movements that he was beginning to understand that the stealth that he usually enjoyed when hunting in the Murk would be of little value to him in this combat, the injuries that Jakob had exacted upon him only making an already difficult situation more challenging.
In the place of stealth, the Wraith selected speed, rushing toward Jakob in a grey blur.
Jakob sidestepped the attack, running the dagger in his left hand across the Wraith’s ribs, then pivoting to avoid the backhanded stab the monster aimed for his eye.
The furious Wraith didn’t stop there. Ignoring the pain of his new wounds, he lunged with the dagger in his right claw, aiming for the throat.
Jakob was ready for the attack, barely needing to move, simply adjusting where he stood so that when the Wraith’s bone-white steel slid by his face, his own dagger, held out in front of him, cut across the Wraith’s claw, slicing off two of the monster’s needle-sharp fingers.
The Wraith reared back in shock and pain, dropping the blade.
Despite Jakob’s success, the Wraith down to a single dagger while nursing several severe wounds, including a claw that he could no longer use, he knew that he needed to be careful. A single mistake against his adversary would cost him his life.
He also realized that he had made the right decision to take on the Wraith with his daggers. Attempting to use his sword against the wickedly fast creature would have been a useless effort.
Even with the Wraith only able to attack with one weapon, the monster pushed Jakob to the very limit of his abilities. Several times Jakob had to employ the manacles on his wrists to defend against one of the Wraith’s unceasing stabs and slashes. And if not for the Talent, none of his efforts to protect himself would have mattered. He wouldn’t have been able to see the Wraith in the mist until it was too late.
Jakob was pleased with himself despite the challenge of the combat. Even as he became more and more certain that he only had a few minutes at most to live.
He could sense the other Wraiths climbing up the ridge. The one he was fighting now had shifted his focus more to holding him in place rather than killing him, waiting for his comrades to join the fight.
The change in tactics only made sense. The Wraith’s wounds were beginning to slow him down and preventing him from taking the fight to Jakob as the creature would have preferred.
That didn’t mean, however, that the Wraith still wasn’t ready to try to kill him if the opportunity presented itself.
Sensing Jakob’s brief moment of distraction, the Wraith lunged forward, aiming a stab for Jakob’s groin.
He dodged out of the way. But the Wraith stayed with him, refusing to allow him to disengage.
For the next several seconds, the constant chatter of steel striking steel drifted through the fog. Jakob defending against every thrust and stab. Some so close that he felt the monster’s blade slice a whisker off his cheek several times.
A rising growl made smile Jakob smile. His adversary was hurt and angry. Frustrated as well. Likely getting anxious.
More important, the Wraith still wanted to kill him before his brethren arrived. That meant that Jakob might have a chance to get in a strike before the odds turned against him for good.
He discovered that his assumptions were correct just a few seconds later. In a lunge that was no more than a faint shift in the fog, the Wraith stabbed for Jakob’s eye.
It was just a ruse, however. The Wraith shifted the positioning of his arm so that he could scrape his steel across Jakob’s throat instead.
The speed of the assault didn’t bother Jakob. He saw it all. Thanks to Aloysius’ training, time slowed for him, giving him the chance to respond accordingly.
Parrying the cut aimed for his neck, at the same time Jakob spun away from his adversary and kicked out with his right leg.
The blow slammed into the back of the Wraith’s legs, sending the creature toppling to the ground, the monster knocked off balance so easily because he had overextended himself in his lust to kill his prey.
Jakob continued with his motion, forcing the Wraith down to the wet grass, putting his knees on the Wraith’s chest, crushing the breath from the creature at the same time that he stabbed the dagger in his left hand straight through the monster’s neck.
The Wraith emitted a soft gurgling sound, all the creature’s energy leaving him along with the gush of blood that spurted from the wound when Jakob pulled his weapon free.
Jakob sighed with relief. At least he had killed one of the Wraiths pursuing him.
A small victory, and likely his only one.
Sensing that he had a few seconds to study his enemy, he finally got a good look, the Wraith no longer just a moving shadow.
His dead opponent was tall. Taller than him by a head or more. He was also thin, almost emaciated. The monster’s greyish white skin, matched with its grey leather armor, allowed him to blend into the fog almost perfectly.
The Wraith’s hands were more like claws. What was most striking, however, was the gaunt, almost skeletal face. That feature made it seem as if the Wraith’s skin was pulled too tightly over his bones.
Realizing that his time was up, Jakob pushed himself off the Wraith and sprinted along the ridge toward the very end of the ledge. The other Wraiths hunting him were there.
They had heard the fight. They were closing in around him.
Jakob knew that he couldn’t escape. But he could try to find a place where he could better defend himself.
Thanks to the Talent, he knew just the spot.
Reaching the small summit of the cliff, Jakob stopped and turned, daggers held at the ready. The rocks that marked the border of the ridge rose up behind him and would prevent the Wraiths from coming at him from behind.
That was the best that he could do. There was no more space and no more time to run.
He didn’t have long to wait.
The Wraiths coalesced out of the mist, four all told. They were about ten yards away from him, no more than dim images in the swirling fog.
If not for the Talent, he wouldn’t have even known that they were there. With the natural magic of the world within his grasp, he could see the monsters as clear as day.
It had been a good run, Jakob thought. His father would have been proud of him for surviving so long.
Yet it seemed that his luck, what little that he had, had just run out.
Strangely, for the next several minutes there was nothing but silence. Apparently, his adversaries wanted to get a good look at him before they killed him.
Jakob forced himself to not take a step back when the Wraith in the center stepped forward, not stopping until he was only a few yards away. Even with the lack of distance between them, Jakob still would have had a difficult time making out the monster in the mist if not for the help of the Talent.
He assumed that this was the leader. The other Wraiths had remained in place, deferring to him.
Jakob could sense the tension within them. The desire to kill him. The monsters were working very hard to restrain that urge, that privilege apparently falling to the Wraith standing before him.
“You’ve run as far as you can, rabbit,” hissed the Wraith. “You have nowhere else to go now. Nowhere else to hide.”
“I can always fight my way through you and your friends,” Jakob replied, trying to infuse his voice with a bravado that he wasn’t feeling.
His comments earned a soft chuckle from the Wraith Scout. “I appreciate your courage and your confidence, but that matters little in your current circumstances. All that matters now, in this moment, is your skill. Do you have that skill, boy? I’m not sure that you do. I am sure that I will be taking your head back to the Wraith Hunter. He will want to gaze upon the face of the quarry who has proven so difficult to kill. The quarry who has culled one from the Horde.”
As he listened to the words drift out of the fog, Jakob realized that this was the Wraith who had spoken to him just yesterday during the beginning of the hunt, trying to spook him, to get him to reveal where he was.
Strangely, instead of the Wraith’s promise filling him with terror, Jakob instead was curious. He wanted to know who the Wraith Hunter was.
Of course that really didn’t matter now. All that mattered in that moment doing all that he could to extend his life for as long as he possibly could.
“You seem awfully confident that you can kill me,” Jakob said. “I just killed one of your fighters.”
“I will give you the credit you deserve for killing my hunter. However, you need to understand that I am not my hunter. I am more than my hunter.” The Wraith Scout took another step toward him. “I am just speaking the truth.”
“Then don’t hold it against me when I prove you a liar.”
“Strong words, boy.” The Wraith Scout’s laugh sounded like a saw cutting through wood. “But I expect no less.” The Wraith snorted. “So tell me, boy, are you ready for the Dance of the Daggers.”
“Always,” Jakob replied in a strong, soft voice.
Jakob didn’t wait for the Wraith to attack, wanting to catch his adversary by surprise with a stab aimed for his left thigh.
The Wraith slipped to the side, avoiding the jab.
But the monster on the mist didn’t evade the primary attack, which actually was the dagger in Jakob’s other hand. He plunged the steel hilt deep into the Wraith’s right knee.
The Wraith shrieked in both anger and pain, Jakob stepping back before the monster could catch him across the chest with a slice of his double-bladed dagger.
“That is the only blood you will draw this day, rabbit,” hissed the Wraith, gliding forward with a remarkable speed, though slower than usual thanks to the wound that Jakob had just given the creature.
Jakob had hoped that getting in that blow would disable to Wraith. No such luck. Although it did make it somewhat easier for Jakob to defend himself.
Still, that’s all that he was able to do for the next few minutes.
The Wraith ignored the severity of his wound and applied constant pressure. His twin blades sliced through the fog with a speed that proved mesmerizing if Jakob watched the pattern too closely.
Yet through it all, Jakob unable to break away from the Wraith, the creature seeking a way past his defenses, the monster failed to deliver the final strike, which clearly annoyed the Wraith.
“You fight well, rabbit, but I have never failed on a hunt. I will not fail now.”
“Say what you want. There’s a first time for everything.”
Jakob’s retort lacked the confidence that he wanted it to have. Despite the Wraith’s wound, the monster was proving to be a challenging opponent, his speed almost getting the better of Jakob several times.
And now, after more than a week on the run, after watching his father die, after not getting any sleep for several days, Jakob was tiring. He was finding it more and more difficult to stay in the fight.
His movements were becoming slower. More sluggish.
A few times he slid across the wet grass, thrown off balance, luckily always keeping his feet and avoiding the slash that the Wraith inevitably sent his way in an attempt to make him pay for his clumsiness.
Of course, those slashes didn’t miss by much. They were coming closer to cutting into his body each time.
The Wraith noticed how the boy was beginning to falter, sensing that his opportunity to end this combat had arrived. The monster in the mist became a whirlwind of motion. It was as if Jakob’s stab into the creature’s knee had no impact on him whatsoever.
Jakob defended himself as best as he could. But finally, after several long minutes of escaping the Wraith’s steel, he felt the slice of the Wraith’s dagger across his cheek and brow, a fiery pain spreading through his body.
He ignored the heat and the warm blood trickling down his face. He couldn’t afford to allow himself to be distracted. Not now.
Right after he received his wound, Jakob stumbled in the slick grass, one foot slipping too far to the side.
Recognizing his chance, the Wraith lunged with the dagger in his left claw, slashing for his prey’s throat, believing that the boy finally was his.
The Wraith didn’t realize until it was much too late that Jakob’s clumsiness was just a feint. The ploy earned Jakob the opportunity that he had been seeking that he wasn’t sure he would ever get.
Jakob slid to the side, avoiding the Wraith’s cut. Before the monster could recover, he drove the dagger in his left hand up through the creature’s jaw and then into his brain.
With a hard shove of his shoulder, Jakob pushed the Wraith off his steel, the monster collapsing to the ground, a look of permanent surprise serving as the Wraith’s death mask.
“As I said, there’s a first time for everything,” Jakob offered to his former adversary, his blood up. He turned quickly toward the lip of the ridge, preparing himself for the remaining Wraiths who still stood no more than ten yards away.
They appeared uncertain. Not sure what to do. No expecting their leader to die.
He was thrilled that he had just killed the Wraith leader, but as he watched the Wraiths he understood that his success had only bought him some additional time. The three Wraiths would come for him, and they would finish him quickly, because he didn’t have the energy to take on so many of the creatures at one time.
And even if he did, they still would have killed him. Taking on one of the monsters on his own was challenge enough.
Jakob would put up the hardest fight that he could, but the result had already been determined. The best that he could hope for was that he take one more of the creatures with him to the other side.
“Grab the rope, lad,” said a scratchy voice from far above him. “It’s your only chance.”
Jakob risked a glance behind him, seeing a rope swaying in and out of the fog.
He shook his head in disbelief. He had been mistaken when he reached the top of the ridge.
He hadn’t been forced to stop because of the stone of the cliff, but rather because of the stone of a tall tower built at the very edge of the ridge. He had been so focused on the Wraiths pursuing him that he had completely missed the structure rising behind him, believing that it was a natural landmark.
Not wanting to miss his opportunity, Jakob held his dagger in one hand and reached for the rope. In an instant he was twenty feet off the ground and rising through the haze.
And just in time.
The Wraiths lunged for him, missing him by no more than a hair as they rushed out of the fog, seeking to sink either their daggers or their claws into his flesh.
They weren’t particular. They just wanted to kill the boy and claim the credit for his death as their own.
When he was about one hundred feet in the air, Jakob came to a stop. Then he felt himself being swung to the right. It wasn’t long before he dropped down onto the top of the tower, several men already wrapping the rope around their arms as they made their way toward a small opening in the stone roof.
“There’s definitely going to be a scar there,” said the scratchy voice. His rescuer motioned with a large hammer to the thin scar that cut across much of his own shaved head and then toward the bloody slice that Jakob had taken. “Your days as a handsome young man have come to an end.”
“I’d rather just be alive,” Jakob replied, feeling incredibly tired, even jittery, as the adrenaline that had helped him take on a fist of Wraiths began to fade within him.
“That’s the spirit, lad.” The fellow smiled and gave him a nod of respect upon seeing the manacles on his wrists. Those told him all that he needed to know about the young man.
About where he had come from. What he had been through.
Few escaped the slavers. No one escaped the Wraiths. Except for him.
“You’re brave lad, but foolish,” his rescuer continued. “Standing against a Wraith like that is a death wish.”
“I didn’t have much of a choice.”
“I guess you really didn’t, now did you? How long have you been in the fog?”
“Since yesterday,” Jakob replied. “Several times before that as well.”
“You’ve been out in the open ever since you escaped the slavers?”
“Yes.” Jakob didn’t have the energy to provide his interrogator with any more information than that.
“How long have these particular Wraiths been hunting you?”
“Like I said, since yesterday.”
That caught the man’s attention -- he didn’t know anyone who could say the same -- as did the young man’s performance against the Wraiths, although he had listened to the combat more than watched because of the denseness of the fog.
Few survived in the fog without locating a strong, defensible fortification. None could say that they had killed a Wraith and lived to tell the tale, much less two of the monsters.
“How did you evade the Wraiths for so long?”
“I applied a lot of what my father taught me,” murmured Jakob, wanting nothing more than to lie down and rest for several days, knowing at the same time that he couldn’t do that. Not yet. “And a lot of luck.”
Jakob wasn’t comfortable saying much more than that, not wanting to reveal to a complete stranger that he could use the Talent. Not everyone viewed his unique ability to make use of natural magic in a positive light, and he had no desire to be left outside the tower with the Wraiths. He could hear from the sounds coming from below that the monsters were beginning to climb the stone of the tower.
“Your father still out in the fog?” The man who had saved Jakob already knew the answer, or at least he suspected that he did. Nevertheless, he felt the need to ask.
Jakob looked at the fellow who had saved him. He saw the hope in his eyes. He appreciated that. But he also saw the hint of reality that was there as well, the acceptance of what must have occurred.
“No. He’s not.” Jakob said no more than that, not yet ready to share the story of what had happened to his father, what his father had done for him, with anyone else, especially someone he didn’t know.
The man stared at him for several seconds, apparently unconcerned as the sounds of the Wraiths digging their claws into the side of the tower became more pronounced. Jakob thought he saw a hint of sympathy behind the man’s hard eyes.
“The name is Dargenton Westgard, but everyone calls me Duff.”
“I’m glad they do. That’s a mouthful.” He said it was a small grin. “Jakob.”
Duff stared at Jakob for several seconds more, then laughed heartily. “A sense of humor after what you’ve had to deal with? What’s not to like? Come on.”
Duff motioned to the trap door in the roof, leading him down into the tower, the men who had stowed the rope waiting for them so that they could pull the steel door shut and lock it in place.
“We’ll wait out the Wraiths,” Duff explained. “We can move on when the fog clears. You seem to have no problem killing those bastards, but I don’t feel like trying my hand against three today.”
“Thank you. I appreciate the help.” Jakob kept his hand along the inside wall, fearing that he would miss a step, the last of his energy draining away. “I owe you a debt. If not for you and your men, I’d be dead.”
“Don’t worry about that, Jakob. Just doing what needed doing.” Duff motioned to the manacles circling his wrists. “We can get those off you. We can’t do it here, but we can where we’re going. We’ve got a blacksmith’s forge in the village just a few leagues to the south.”
Jakob considered the offer for a moment, staring at the steel around his wrists. “Thank you, but no. I’m not taking these off until every person enslaved in the Highlands is free.”
Duff’s smile broadened as he headed down the steps again, not moving deeper within the tower until he heard the telltale pinging and pounding that confirmed for him that the steel trap door above them had been locked and secured.
Just in time too, because he heard as well the soft thump of the first Wraith to step onto the top of the tower right before the steel fit into place.
“I like how you think, Jakob. I get the feeling that we’re going to get along just fine.”
I hope you enjoyed the scene from Book 3 (available December 1, 2023)