General Author Note: Special thanks to my friend SoreinaHiwatari001, who helped me with the grammar on this episode. Be sure to go to her profile and check out her awesome RWBY, Beyblade and Red vs Blue stories. Without more delay, I let you with the next chapter of Against all Darkness (I promise the next chapters are gonna have a title lol.)
2. One More for the Road
-Strasbourg streets, Morning-
The stagecoach finally came to a stop after some good twelve hours on the road, in which Dismas kept counting, again and again, the money he won from the knight the last few days. The former highwayman had earned a good amount so far, and he still didn't know what was exactly the job he was hired for, but he didn't mind. As long as the money keep flowing into his pockets, he'll stay around this Mr. Stanford.
"I'm going to ask you two gentlemen to come with me this time," Robert stated before getting down of the stagecoach.
"Um... of course," Reynauld said a bit confused. "May I ask why this change in approach?" the knight asked. In all the visits the group made Mr. Stanford always went to these meeting alone, hoping that a personal and private chat would make the individuals the Heir intended to hire or recruit would trust him a bit more.
"Well, unlike the people we meet so far," Robert said, grabbing his black leather briefcase from beneath his seat. "She is... different."
"Whaddya mean?" Dismas asked, making Robert turn to him suddenly.
"I had thought, Mr. Dismas, that our agreement was: I give you the information required to complete the job, and in return I pay you. Nothing more." Robert replied coldly. Dismas was taken aback by the comment, this being the first time both he and Reynauld heard Robert anything close to being upset.
"You're in charge," Dismas said back and went ahead of the duo before he could say something that could cut off his money source.
"Wait!" Robert said. The Highwayman slowly came to a halt. "I must apologize. This has nothing to do with you. It's just..." he said.
"Fine," Dismas said after a while. He sighed. "I guess everyone has their own demons, huh?"
"You are right about that," Robert said, recovering his usual emotionless tone. "The thing is, I trust Dr. De la Croix and I was intending to tell her about the nature of this job, and since you two are here I want to inform you as well." He turned to the coachmen "Wait here."
"Of course, sir."
He turned back to his two companions. "After all, you should know what are you getting into. Over here gentlemen." He lead them to one of the main squares of the city, the Place Kléber. "I have sent the doctor a letter beforehand to meet with her near Jean-Baptiste's statue."
"Ah, such a place, with all the historic value it harbors." Reynauld began. "We must feel honored to walk over the grave of a great hero."
"The only thing I see is a big, open place. Perfect for an ambush" Dismas said, looking cautiously in every direction. "I don't like it here."
"Come on, Dismas! Try to enjoy a bit of this magnificent place." the knight said before noticing a peculiar looking woman in her mid-twenties sitting on a bench facing the giant statue. She was wearing a green and black medic attire, which was distinctive from her line of work except for the infamous peak mask the doctors used to wear. Leaving the way she was dressed and the fact that she wasn't wearing her hood, it was undeniable to think of her as beautiful, with green eyes and long brunette hair combed in a ponytail. "Besides, I think we're back to business. Sir, you mentioned she was a doctor, right?"
"Yes," Robert said. He looks in the direction Reynauld was, and the tiniest trace of a smile carved its way into his face. "Yeah, it's her."
Isabella de la Croix decided to wait for Robert while reading some of her patients' files. For better of worse, she was the kind of women that carried part of her workload with her at all times. That day, she also took a few documents about the newest techniques and methods regarding her area of expertise: Epidemiology. When she wasn't taking care of somebody's kid, or helping with the rehab of some soldier's leg, she was at the vanguard of the latest findings on new diseases, bacteria, and viruses. She spotted Robert and his... rather distinctive companions with ease as they approached to meet her.
"Ah, it's a pleasure to see you again, Mr. Stanford," she said
"The pleasure is mine, as always," Robert said. "This are Mr. Dismas Gavrielatos and Mr. Reynauld Martell. Gentlemen, this is Dr. Isabella de la Croix"
"Just Dismas. Nice to meet you." the man said, waving a hand nonchalantly.
"A pleasure to be your acquaintances, my lady." Reynauld greeted. He leaned in and was about to kiss her hand when she suddenly retreated it.
"Don't take this the wrong way Sir Reynauld, I'm truly glad to meet both of you, but I just got out from the sick bay inside a communal house," Isabella explained. "You don't know the kind of pathogens lying in those places".
"Oh my, you're right. Thank you." the knight said. Maybe that was the reason for neither Mr. Standford nor Dismas to shake hands with her, Reynauld thought.
"Real stuck in the 'gentleman' role, aren't ya?" Dismas asked, a grin on his face.
"T-that's not..." Reynauld was caught off guard. Isabella giggled at the knight's reaction.
"Where did you get your new friends, Mr. Stanford?" Isabella asked, giving them a good look after the initial impression. "With all due respect, sir, they don't seem your kind of people."
"I may tell you later. We need to discuss some business first." Robert said, gesturing the other to follow him further into the square.
-A few hours later, Somewhere along the Old Road-
"Please! Have mercy!" a man cried. The scene could have been mistaken as just another assault on a stagecoach; there was a group of at least fifteen men with daggers and guns, tattered robes, and menacing looks on their faces. There was also two men, a woman, and a child on their knees, raising their hands and handling their belongings, and a dead coachman a few yards away from the coach itself.
"Shut up!" one of the bandits yelled as he hit the man in the head with the back of his gun, knocking the man and rendering him unconscious. "You'll speak only when Big Boss says so."
"Please! Let us go! We'll say nothing about you to the lawman!" the woman cried. She was hugging the little boy trying to protect him.
"I said shut up!" the bandit said and was about to hit the lady when a powerful 'bang' was heard by all the presents. A few seconds later, the bandit dropped to the ground... dead.
"I demand respect from my men," a deep voice spoke, hidden between the rest of the gang. "However, what good is respect for if they just keep doing as they please in my behalf?!"
"Wha-?! Sir, you killed him!" one of them said. "He was about to teach this bitch some respect!"
"No." the silhouette of a man standing up came to sight. It was taller than most of the bandits, and they all got out of his way once he began to walk towards the hostages. "He was about to beat a woman who tried to defend her child from a thief. None of you will be laying a finger on them."
The woman looked at the place where the voice came from. "Thank you, good sir. I don't know what I'll do if I -" she began
"Shut up." the man cut her off as he began to walk towards them. What the man and his family saw was a bearded man in his early forties, with a fierce yet calm expression on his face and a scar over and below his left eye. The man was mostly dressed as the rest of his men, with the exception being a wolf's fur surrounding his neck, working as both an extra protection against the cold and a symbol of his authority over his band of brigands. "My name is Vvulf. And I may be many things, but a 'good sir' isn't one of them."
Just as he said that the howling of a few wolfs or wild dogs nearby the camp where they were at the moment sounded close enough for the woman to get pretty anxious. "What was that?!" she asked, knowing very well what the answer would be. A small grin appeared on Vvulf's face.
"A proof that I'm not a good man. Take them to the back of the camp!" he ordered.
"Wha-! But you said -" the woman said as she fought the criminals who tried to get her and her son to their feet. They also dragged the still unconscious man with them.
"I said none of my men would be laying a finger on all of you." Vvulf said as the expression on his face turned into a sadistic smirk. "But the dogs still need to eat."
"N-no! You can't do this to us!" the woman cried as they took her and her family to the wolfs. Vvulf signaled a few of his men to follow him towards the bonfire near them. Their camp wasn't that big, but with its numerous tents, a place for the stuff they got from assaults and theft, not to mention the five bonfires around, it was large enough to consider this place a base of sorts for the brigands of the Old Road. Vvulf lead the small group to a big tent near the center of the camp.
"We need to set more ambushes in the roads." he began as he put a map describing the Old Road, and the several routes inside the forest as well as the most visited zones by stagecoaches and diligences. "We need to get every coin we can before winter comes our way."
"Yeah, if we try it by then, the snow will become a problem." one of them said.
"But we're gonna need more men to do so." the third man said. He then pointed a few areas on the map that were painted in red. "And if we want this to work out, we're gonna need to scavenge 'those' places too. You know that, right Boss?"
Before Vvulf could say anything else, a scream broke the silence across the camp. And he couldn't suppress a brief smirk. "Then send our best scouts there, Kram. Let them know only what they need to know about those places," he ordered to his lieutenant. He turned to the second one. "Termus, grab a few of your men and go to the near cities. See if you can get in contact with the local mobs."
"I can go, but they won't listen to us if we don't go with something to offer. You know how they run business," Termus said. A faint smirk formed again in the bandit chief's face as he came to a realization.
"Then tell them," Vvulf said, his sight set on a specific part of the map. One where all the red areas were connected one way or another. "we'll have something for them should they decide to cooperate with us."
"What would that be?" Termus, a bit intrigued himself.
"A hamlet," Vvulf said with a grin. The screams ceased, and a heavy silence came after that.
Indeed, the scene could have been mistaken as just another assault on a stagecoach. Except that this wasn't just another assault. Something much, much greater than that was being plotted inside the tent on the center of that camp.
-Meanwhile, at the Hamlet-
News about Mr. Stanford's 'guests' spread like wildfire, and were received in several ways among the population of the small town. Given recent the increase in attacks by the bandits who inhabited the dense forest at the side of the village, some thought that it would be a good idea to hire some mercenaries to defend them against future assaults. Others, however, were not so open to the idea of letting strangers enter their lands freely. And there were a few, among the elders, who still remembered the atrocities that a group of strangers had put them through, a lifetime ago.
The town was literally divided in front of the dilapidated tavern, the place where people usually met to hear the latest announcements involving the entire community. Carl Dereck, a bald man in his fifties, with a long, blond mustache, who wore a brown leather vest over a cotton shirt, stood by the door of his business, studying the crowd.
"But, I still don't get it, Mr. Colt." a man at the front of the reunited crowd said. "Why hire so many warriors?"
"Mr. Stanford would have his reasons," August answered. "But don't worry, he'll make sure they don't cause more problems than they are intended to solve."
"... Still, this whole thing sounds dangerous," a woman said, with her two kids by her side. "I could understand two or three strangers in town, but a whole band of armed men, wandering around like they own the place?"
"I don't think we should worry that much," another man said. "As long as we pay them up and keep the tavern stocked with booze well be fine. We better ready our coins back at home, eh?"
"That won't be necessary," August assured him. "Mr. Stanford himself has said he'll take care of that."
"Well, that's a new one," Carl said. The old bartender had a reputation for being a reserved man, so his sudden interruption surprised those present. "That guy barely knew about this town until a couple of months ago, and in all that time he has not bothered to invest a single coin in this place. Not that I complain or anything, but why now that some strangers come to this, our home, is that he shows a sudden interest in rehabilitating it?"
"The important thing here, Mr. Dereck, is that the hamlet WILL be rehabilitated," August replied. "Listen, I'm not comfortable with this either. But it shouldn't take any longer than a month." Seeing that most of the people had calmed down, he continued. "A work crew will arrive here in a few hours to help us reopen the old guild building in order to host the guests, and from there, the rest of the town will follow."
"We'll see about that." the bartender said as he watched the crowd, which was dispersed shortly thereafter. Carl went into his business and began attending to those who entered the tavern. After pouring some drinks and stopping a few drunken brawls, Carl noticed a hooded figure seated by the bar. The bartender would have sworn there wasn't anybody there a moment ago, and he would have noticed if someone as shady as that guy walked through the front door. "Can I get you anything, pal?" he asked, with the friendly tone characteristic of anyone who attends a bar.
The man turned to him, the light of the place covering the face under the red hood. The stranger seemed to be in his thirties, with very short hair and a stern look, and a very particular scar across his left eye. "Just a beer. I won't stay for much longer now." was his answer. Carl nodded and poured his drink. He wasn't sure he had seen him before, but it didn't care. He had enough problems with the recent events in his once peaceful village as it was.