The White Voyager
Mercer watched what appeared to be ants as they traversed the field below him. Even with his spyglass they looked miniscule and puny, especially when compared with the dark ranks on the horizon that were steadily marching towards them. These were far greater in number and Mercer could tell they also looked far more up to the job than the weary ranks of the third regiment infantry.
“Do you honestly think we can win today?” Baren asked, tone clearly indicating his personal opinion, “seven thousand dragoons just crossed the Jocase. Armed to the teeth, must be. Bloomin’ Vampires.”
Mercer knew Baren to be quite a pessimistic person. He didn’t expect much else from someone who had served in the Imperial Cavalry for so long, but liked to think himself the stronger for being one of the few optimists interspersed throughout their ranks. Then again, optimists didn’t tend to last long when the bullets flew.
“Think we have a chance,” he said with a shrug, “general Mormont should be arriving with five thousand linemen soon. That’s in addition to the thousand we already got.”
“Five thousand, eh? Come on Mercer, this is a matter of life and death. By the time they get here we’ll be corpses.”
“Not if we outsmart them.”
“Outsmart them?” Baren looked at Mercer as if he had just punched himself in the face, “might as well arrange my funeral ahead of time. Save me family the trouble.”
Mercer noticed the glazed over look in Roland’s eyes out of the corner of his own. Roland was a fresh recruit and had not yet been exposed to the likes of Baren or Daren just yet. In a sense he felt jealous of him, but also remembered what it felt like to experience battle for the first time. The fear, the conflict. All unpleasant memories that every member of the Regiment had to put behind them in order to carry on. Some couldn’t manage that. Mercer didn’t want Roland to become one of those people.
“Don’t mind Baren. Likes overreacting to everything.”
He said, attention turned briefly to the recruit. Baren, appearing a little offput by the comment, snorted and sauntered off towards the nearby campsite, which was bordering the edge of a thicket. Mercer knew it was just an act though. Even Baren valued the lives of his allies deep down inside his miserable, sardonic heart.
Roland sat with his back against an old oak, one leg extended, the other arched. He still looked at Mercer with uncertainty etched across his face, voice timid and shaky.
“So will we win?”
“Yes,” Mercer said after a brief pause, “we’ll win.”
“How you figure that?”
“Quality over quantity, that’s how I figure it.”
“Then we have better troops?”
Mercer chuckled a bit and took his eyes off the valley below once again.
“Of course not. We have some of the most under trained, under disciplined and under fed men in all the Mire. But you know what we do have, Roland?”
“Scholars,” Mercer answered, trying to look and sound as confident as possible, “listen here. Vampires are faster than us, stronger than us, and tougher than us. But they sure do hate fire. One good fire spell can send a whole line of them running for the hills. We got plenty of men with us who can put one down too. You can count on that.”
“Seem awfully confident.”
Mercer, retracting the golden metal of his spyglass into a more compact form, sat down upon the dried grass of the hilltop on his knees.
He always liked to sit that way for some reason. Just found it more comfortable.
“Of course I’m confident. They might not look the part, but these men are tried and true warriors who have fought in more battles me or Baren, even. We won’t be the ones losing today, son.”
Roland broke eye contact, staring at a nearby anthill with an empty look in his eyes.
“That might be true, but… I believe today is the day I will die.”
Mercer raised a brow.
“And what makes you think that?”
“Been having this dream. I’m riding through a little valley and the-.”
His sentence was interrupted by the gruff voice of the company leader, Kimbolt.
“We’re heading out. Be ready in five minutes, all of you.”
“Alright, Roland,” Mercer said, rising back to his feet and making off towards the camp, “let’s show them what we’re made of.”
Mercer walked past a man sharpening his blade with an ordinary stone back at camp, sitting around a burned out fire pit with a couple others who looked to be just as uncertain as Roland about their current situation. Mercer couldn’t really blame them for being afraid, though. The odds were hardly in their favor for this battle and it was unlikely that even half of them would make it out alive.
“Use a damn whetstone,” Mercer removed his own standard issue whetstone from one of the pockets of his grey waistcoat and casually tossed it to the boy at the fire, “that rock’s just going to make it even more dull.”
The kid threw away the stone and just managed to catch the projectile, giving his benefactor an approving nod. Mercer had his attention focused to his front, however, since he could see his comrade about to do something that he would most certainly end up regretting.
Everyone was getting ready to move, now, mounting their horses and priming their flintlocks for combat. But Baren approached the captain in a way that made Mercer nervous of what would occur.
“How long do you think we’ll last before you sound the retreat, eh?” he spoke, hands on his hips and a mockingly interested look on his face, “ten, maybe fifteen minutes?”
Kimbolt looked down upon Baren from atop his chestnut Bay with a very unamused look in his eyes.
“What do you think you’re saying?”
“We got three cavalry divisions, right? Each with say, thirty men apiece. So let’s say we got ourselves a hundred men in total. Now how would you imagine a hundred men faring against seven thousand?”
“The correct answer is ‘not well’, but you were only one word off, I suppose.”
Kimbolt, narrowing his eyes with annoyance burning in them, let go of the reigns of his horse and dismounted, bringing himself to full height before Baren. Mercer took a step back and watched with apprehension as the scene unfolded.
“A funny man, eh?” the captain spoke in a barely audible tone, “well I don’t have much of a sense of humor.”
Baren raised his brows and Mercer could tell that a quip was coming.
“Wouldn’t have much a sense of humor either if I was shat out with your mug.”
The punch that followed was swift, striking Baren’s face with an audible thud and throwing the man back a bit. It looked like Baren knew exactly what would happen, however, which explained why he hadn’t been knocked clean on his back.
“We have our orders, we follow our orders. There is no room for debate.”
Kimbolt climbed back atop his steed and, with a brief flick of the reigns, was off. Baren cupped his hand against his left eye with a grimace on his face, body knelt over from the evident pain.
Mercer knew he was a naturally defiant man, but never thought he would go so far as to question or even insult the captain like he had just done. The odds of him listening to anything Baren had to say were next to none, that Mercer knew for sure.
“You’re a bloody idiot.” He said, shaking his head while approaching his unlikely friend.
“Aye, that I know,” Baren said, voice tinged with a hiss from the pain he was experiencing, “might as well try to convince the bastard not to get us all killed, though.”
“Like I said, if we play our cards right we’ll have a chance. So get saddled up now, before Kimbolt gives you another black eye.”
The ride was a long and hard one. Despite the dark clouds that were gathering overhead, sweat oozed from every man’s pours without exception. Mercer took the jug of water attached to his saddlebags and drank ravenously, before pouring a sparing amount over his head in an attempt to stave off the midday sun. Others around him had the same idea, most likely betting that the clouds would burst and allowing them to refill their provisions soon. They were flanked on both sides by dense underbrush and spruces and pines that swayed in the gentle breeze. Mourning Doves and woodpeckers joined in with the other sounds of the forest to create a lazy melody that contrasted greatly with what they were presumably about to do: flank and destroy the overwhelming enemy forces. The air had the scent of pine needles and juniper to it, pleasant and refreshing.
“Jocase’s only a few miles from here, methinks,” said Baren, who was riding almost parallel to Mercer, “means we’re already behind enemy lines.”
“Mhm. Starting to think that might actually be the point.”
“And why’s that?”
“These are messenger trails.” A red fox observed the procession from the concealment of a raspberry bush and Mercer turned to face it with slight curiosity. Baren, appearing far less amused by the animal, raised a brow.
“What’s that got to do with anything?”
“They won’t be wasting three perfectly good cavalry units by having them attack seven thousand men head on, Baren. They want us to disrupt the chain of command long enough for Mormont to arrive, since we know the surroundings better than the bloodsuckers do.”
“We do?” Baren looked around demonstratively, “never been here in me life.”
“Neither have I, but he has,” Mercer indicated a young man wearing all but rags who seemed to be pointing things out to Kimbolt at the tip of the caravan, “our countrymen don’t like Vampires either. That gives us an advantage.”
Mercer noticed Roland advancing to a position on the road to his left. There was still a sullen look in his eyes that betrayed what seemed to be a sort of acceptance within them.
“What’s your favorite food?”
He asked abruptly, nearly stumbling over his own words in enthusiasm for whatever reason. Mercer shot the boy a speculative glance while Baren simply regarded him with a blank stare.
“Gonna have to say vag-.”
Mercer interrupted in a slightly louder tone than he usually took.
“Oh, well mine is pork. I used to be a hog farmer y’know. Helped out my dad around our farm before the Vampires burned it down.”
Roland said, sombreness creeping into the latter half of his reply.
“Sorry to hear that,” Mercer said, giving the boy a deeply honest look to accompany his words, “in war, the greatest casualties are among the ones who don’t fight.”
“Who said that?”
Baren scoffed and redirected his vision forwards again. Roland smiled a little.
“What about you, Mercer? Who was your father?”
Mercer exhaled deeply and leaned back in his saddle.
“Who is my father,” he corrected, “Ain’t that a story.”
“Could you tell it, perhaps?”
Mercer sighed and looked off into nowhere. He didn’t want to recall those memories in the first place, but considering how boring it had been up until that point it couldn’t be that bad.
“His name was Autsio Cedric, and from the day he was born that bastard was destined to be a criminal.”
“You don’t seem to think too fondly of him.” Said Roland, raising both brows a little in surprise.
Mercer’s mouth became a straight line.
“Well he served under another criminal named Hector of Wyrmwood for many years. Hector was a whole lot worse than Austio from what I’ve heard, so he had made a lot of enemies during his years as a lord. My father used them to take his place, and to this day remains a shriveled up old mobster.”
“And what about your mother?”
“Died in childbirth, unfortunately.”
“Oh,” Roland said, letting his gaze drop upon hearing this, “I understand your pain.”
Asked the veteran, not in an offput way, but in a manner that indicated curiosity.
“They killed my fiancee and her unborn. Right in front of me, made me watch it happen. Knew her since we were kids. Parents were screaming all the while, they both got their throats slit afterwards. Let me live, though. Wanted me to spread the word.”
“Such a waste. Such a pointless waste.”
Said Baren. Mercer looked over to see an almost unnatural look of empathy past his scruffy mustache and jet black eyebrows.
Roland had a faint grin on his face.
“I didn’t tell a single person,” he said, “not one single person, not for three years. I feel better now.”
There was the momentary sound of a click from behind a nearby bush followed by a sharp crack and brief white flash. Mercer jerked back in surprise, soon finding himself covered in a mixture of blood and brain matter as a ball round flew clean through the side of Roland’s head. The body slumped over to one side and hit the ground below with a thud while his and most of the nearby horses whinnied in sudden terror as more muskets went off on both sides of the trail.
Someone shouted. Mercer reached for his flintlock pistol attached to his belt and nearly threw himself off of his horse in an attempt to escape the gunfire ringing out from all around him.
The blood was hot and sticky on his face and he cringed with disdain as he wiped it from his eyes. Thankfully, the first person he saw upon opening them again was Baren. Both of them were on their bellies and beneath their steeds. Dust had been kicked up from the impacts of musket shot and horse hoofs on the dry landscape, creating a cloud that thankfully reduced the visibility of the attackers.
“Let’s uh,” men dressed in camouflage attire leapt from behind trees and parts of the ditch on the side of the road, eyes a little more red than most and brandishing straight swords with rectangular blades that easily reflected the waning sunlight. It was fortunate that Mercer and Baren were towards the rear of the convoy, which was the side farthest away from the attackers, because they were certainly not strapped for numbers. “Live to fight another day.”
Baren finished with a brief grin and a nod, getting back on his feet and offering his comrade a hand up. Mercer accepted it and started running, not bothering to look back at the carnage occurring behind him. He could tell right away that this wasn’t a fight they were going to win.
Shouts and clashing of swords soon filled the air, along with the jarring cracks of gunfire originating from the brush. Normally, Mercer would have remained on horseback, but the sides of the gravel road were at steep inclines that horses would have trouble traversing. His number one priority was to put as much distance between him and the enemy as possible, so staying on his mount was out of the question.
Dirt was kicked up near both Mercer and Baren’s feet from the impact of bullets as they ran. Mercer looked over his shoulder just as they reached the safety of a Lorano Fern, a plant which was essentially an oversized version of a regular fern with both red and green leaves, and momentarily stopped upon seeing the outline of an enemy soldier who was peeking from behind a tree trunk on the other side of the road, aiming a musket his way. His one open eye was a dead giveaway.
Mercer was expecting to be the one ambushing the Vampires, so he had loaded one of the two high explosive flintlock rounds that he and each other soldier were given beforehand. Knowing this, he aimed for the easier target: the pine tree beside his adversary, and pulled the trigger. The bullet quickly turned what was once a source of cover into a hail of deadly shrapnel that tore apart the upper body and face of his Vampiric foe. This, combined with the impact of the loud and earth shaking explosion probably did far more than take the man out of the fight. Mercer resumed running as soon as he saw this happen, however.
“The hell was that?”
Asked Baren, not changing his frantic pace, which put him far ahead of Mercer at this point.
“Now I can say I did something before buggering off.”
The dry foliage beneath their feet was creating noise, but it was nothing compared to the sounds of battle nearby. Vampires could hear much better than humans, but even with this skill it would be difficult for them to track two fleeing targets who were farthest away from the focus of the attack.
The hill would have ordinarily slowed the duo’s advance considerably, but with the adrenaline coursing through them it was a very small obstacle. Unfortunately, Mercer could see Vampire soldiers to his left, kneeling and seemingly preoccupied with aiming muskets at the hapless cavalry unit. His eyes watched for the slightest of movements, and he prayed that they would not notice either him or his comrade, since Vampiric marksmen had built themselves a reputation for accuracy in spite of the many drawbacks of the muskets’ precision. The fact so many shots had missed the both of them earlier was only due to blind luck and the weapon itself. The amount of trees here was lacking, with one every ten meters or so surrounded by bright yellow and vibrant red leaves which marked the approach of autumn, in spite of the mismatch in temperature. The sounds of battle once again masked their movements, allowing them passage to the upper part of the hill, which seemed to be severely lacking when it came to Vampire soldiers.
“Lord and Lady.” Mercer said, coming to a halt with his hands on his kneecaps once he was sure they were far enough away from the fighting. He breathed heavily from the climb, to be joined by an equally exhausted looking Baren.
“This attack seems to,” Baren inhaled for a moment, “be goin’ brilliantly.”
The two soldiers took a few seconds to recover. Mercer was just grateful that they had escaped that situation with their lives. He also understood why Roland had been looking so distant that day, in addition to the vision he claimed to have had. It was beyond him why he didn’t realize it sooner.
It also came as a surprise to him that they had walked into an ambush on such a secure route… Until he saw the outline of the peasant boy who had been leading Kimbolt in the far distance, casually walking away with his back to the two Regimentals.
Mercer pointed at the boy, rising back to his feet fully.
“Isn’t that the kid who was leading us?”
“Sure is,” The veteran, now looking at their former guide in a hardly pleasant way, reached into a space near his boot and withdrew an obsidian knife. The handle was wrapped in cream shaded cloth and the blade was mid sized and serrated towards the end. It was a deadly looking weapon in all respects and had become the standard secondary weapon for most men in the Regimental army. It felt heavy in his hands, sturdy and reliable, “what do you say we deliver a little justice before heading back?”
Baren grinned with a hungry look in his eyes.
“Yes. That’s what I say.”
Mercer, flipping the knife to a back hand position, began sprinting towards his prey in a practiced stride, Baren following not far behind. It was clear the boy wasn’t a Vampire, as he only heard them coming as they closed to within fifty meters. A horrified look was on his face as he nearly stumbled over himself trying to build his pace into a run. Mercer noticed that, at first, he seemed indecisive about heading towards the Vampires or the distance, but when it became clear the Vampires were not an option, he only had one choice.
Mercer uttered. He felt a chill run down his spine as some of his life energy left him in exchange for the basic spell, but in return his limbs became nearly weightless. He was like a wind flowing through the forest landscape, swift as a horse. The man’s arms pumped up and down at a greatly accelerated rate and his feet hit the ground much faster.
‘Phwish phwish phwish phwish phwish.’ Were the sounds his jackboots made. Baren never had a gift for the mystical Cambrian language and kept up his already quick pace as Mercer flew ahead, giving the boy a cold and cutting glare that made him appear all the more terrified as he briefly glimpsed behind his back.
It took all of ten seconds for Mercer to catch up to the double crosser and tackle him to the ground. He turned him around in order to see his face, which was dirty and pale. It also looked like he was scared. Very scared.
“You’re lucky,” Mercer said, putting the blade of his knife against the young man’s neck, “I’m going to make this quick.”
The veteran would ordinarily not have hesitated to open up his prey’s jugular, but what he said next halted him for the time being.
“Wait! Please! I can tell you anything, just don-”
“If your next sentence doesn’t contain one of the most interesting combinations of words I’ve ever heard, you will not be leaving here alive.”
Mercer applied more pressure with his knife to the degree that it was about to draw blood. The young man winced, eyes watching the knife in horror.
“Th-There’s someone overseas. S-Someone who is the true heir to the Imperial throne.”
“They… They call him the ‘White Voyager’. The lord of the Ivory Isles. He escaped the Mire decades ago, the second son of Edmonton Blacke.”
Baren approached with furrowed brows and a face that expressed similar interest, but also skepticism.
“Sounds like he’s makin’ up tales.”
“It certainly does,” agreed Mercer, “which is why if he doesn’t say more of his little story he’s going to get his throat cut.”
“He has an army,” the boy started again, eyes darting from Mercer to Baren frantically, “this Vampire invasion is just a distraction. Raymere is working with him to give back the throne that is rightfully his.”
“Seems a bit odd that a kid would know this.”
“I’m not just a kid. I’m a spy, an expert at my craft. If you let me live I can tell you plenty more, just trust me.”
The boy pleaded.
“Like Kimbolt did?” Mercer said, putting a harshness in his tone, “I think I’ve heard enough.”
“Wouldn’t hurt to take him in for questioning anyways. If this kid’s an actual spy he might just land us promotions.”
Baren reasoned with a shrug. For a time, everything seemed to be quiet, save the irregular breathing of the apparent spy and the distant sounds of musket shot and colliding of steel. Mercer, not fully approving of this and letting it show on his face, removed his blade and pulled the kid up by the collar of his dry and well worn shirt.
He took a relieved breath, regaining his balance on his feet and shrinking away a bit from his captors.
“If you upset me, you’re dead. If you make any unwanted moves, you’re dead. You so much as raise your voice above talking level; dead.”
The boy nodded vigorously, brushing himself off and awaiting what would happen next. Mercer looked to Baren.
“Let’s get him to Cyrus or Orlando. They’ll know what to do with him.”
Mercer had to try with all his might to stop himself from killing the spy. Because of him, Roland was dead. He didn’t even deny it when it meant his very life. His blade was halted not by the promise of a promotion, but of duty to his homelands and people. People the information this boy carried may very well save if anything he said was true. Even his father, who was nothing more than a glorified gangster, had leant a hand to the Regimental army in order to drive out the menace that threatened the people of the Mire. His own devotion to his empire had earned him a scar across his cheek, forged from a Black Iron blade, the weapon of choice for the Raymerians. Mercer saw those same swords in the air today not ten minutes ago and hoped to see far less of them in the future.
The sky began to rumble as the dark clouds Mercer had noticed before drew near, casting a shadow over the gold tinged forest around them. Mercer picked up his pace, being closely followed by his two companions, and soon the sound of the nearby battle began to die, to be replaced by colliding branches, warblers and mourning doves. The natural symphony resumed once again.
It had been three hours of ceaseless walking before Mercer and his two companions reached another dirt road and even longer before they found a sign to tell them where to go. It was a wooden one, with words carved out using a knife and charcoal making the text visible. There were two direction on it, which were “Southpoint” and “Glenning”. The path leading to Glenning branched off to the right while the other continued at a forward trajectory.
“Glenning should take us to the Klienstager.”
Mercer said, observing the sign. He looked back to Baren, who was staring blankly at something behind him. Mercer turned to face his friend’s field of vision and what seemed to be a shrine was there, almost obscured by the nearby bushes and brambles and covered in what he assumed was dried blood.
“Wh-What is that?”
Stuttered the spy.
“That’s a Cryptid’s totem.” Mercer said, walking over to the shrine to get a closer look. It looked to have been made rather recently, and in the shape of an owl. Most of the carvings upon the oaken statuette were crude but Mercer could still clearly make out the little up and down cuts that were the feathers, the lopsided circles that were the eyes, and the chunky wings and talons. It was surrounded by a nest of well woven wicker that was filled with small trinkets, such as gold pocket watches, coins and even a keychain. The blood was centered around the beak and face area, and Mercer was a little unsettled at the emotion the creator had somehow managed to put into the thing. The owl looked almost like it was angered at their very presence.
“But Cryptids aren’t real,” the spy continued, “just old wives tales and nothing more, right?”
“Don’t think you have much a right to start a conversation.”
“It’s alright,” Mercer said, “gotta learn sometime that some legends have truth to them. Cryptids still exist, not as many as in the back when times, but they certainly exist. This one looks to be some kind of forest guardian or something of the like, and these trinkets mean there’s a village nearby.”
“Thought we were heading to Glenning.”
“We are. But assume we’re being watched until we get there.”
As soon as Mercer said this, he felt an extremely odd feeling within him. It felt as if his entire midsection had been numbed and then pricked with needles from all sides. The man stumbled back in sudden confusion before his vision started to fade in and out, the world blurring before him until it was nothing but darkness. All was silent as he sat conscious in this void, unable to move and unable to see. Time lost all meaning and yet Mercer could feel it ticking onwards, until a voice spoke to him from the darkness. It sounded unearthly and deep.
“I am interested in your journey.”