"This disguise is stupid."
"Perfect for you, then."
"Quit it, you two..."
James (wearing a long, black coat, a plain green metal helmet, a pair of green tinted goggles on top of them and a surgical mask currently pulled down on his chin), Muse (wearing a red hoodless cloak and the white demon mask, currently on top of her head) and Mirise (wearing Markus's white doctor's coat, which just about reached her feet, and holding the white plague mask in her hands) were standing in an alley in the northern part of town, which was where the town guard station was located. Even further to the north was the edge of town, beyond which was the Kurita wilderness - which, really, wasn't that wild. There were a few trees scattered around, a couple of small bushes, but mostly just a grassy plain between the town and the northern coast. There wasn't much other activity in this part of town - primarily warehouses that weren't staffed. As such, they didn't run too much risk of being seen by anyone where they were currently located, but there were the occasional guard patrol, and in either case they didn't want to draw any attention to themselves. It had been 38 hours, give or take, since the five of them had formed their alliance - as much of an alliance as it was.
"You're the one who said 'just give me anything'."
"Who picks dark goggles for a night mission?"
"We'll split into two groups," Markus said. "The big problems, as I have explained, are Atlas and the bodyguards, but the town guard must be kept busy too. So, after considering the relative strength and abilities of everyone... miss Kazai is the key to entering the mayor's mansion, so she and myself will deal with that, which means that Muse and James-"
"Are you serious?" Muse asked. "You're putting me with him?"
"Muse, I believe that you are best suited to take care of Atlas, but... not alone. So..."
"Then let me work with water girl."
"My name's Mirise."
"Miss Lake has another task, and James has the physical strength," Markus replied.
"You said two groups..." James said.
"The three of you will have to split up the guards," Markus replied. "You'll move to the northern district."
"And then what?" James asked.
"Timing is crucial... Galt can't notice that anything's going on before we've confronted our targets, and Atlas must not be given a chance to come to the mayor's aid," Markus explained.
"So how can we be sure we can get this Atlas on his own, anyway?" James asked.
"Our biggest advantage is that Atlas is impatient... strike first and draw his attention, and he won't care if the other guards aren't following. And that's where miss Lake comes in."
"So what's my task?"
"The most important of all," Rink said before Markus had the time to continue his explanation.
"What?" Mirise asked.
"Making sure those two bozos don't kill each other."
"Has he come out yet?"
"Nothing so far..."
Markus (wearing a black poncho, a low black hat with a wide brim, a black eye mask and a black kerchief covering the lower half of his face) and Rink (wearing a short gray cloak with a hood and the bronze mask) were lying in wait outside the grounds of the mayor's mansion, located just outside the town to the east. Even though it was called a mansion, and even with the money Galt would have been taking in with the taxes and fees, it was really not that large of a building - two stories, with the upper one looking to be about half the size of the lower from the outside, and the lower one would be considered reasonably sized for a family of four. The part that was considered the mansion grounds was bordered only by a waist-high stone fence. Galt's two bodyguards, dressed in black suits, were standing guard outside the door, each one holding a leash with a guard dog on the other end - large dogs, though well-behaved. Markus and Rink were currently located outside the fence at the back of the building, with a small window on the second floor that Markus had pointed out would be the best chance of entering.
"And what if they smell us?"
"Shouldn't be a problem since they can't tell the guards what they smell."
"Atlas meets with Galt after sundown, and when he returns to the guard station... that's the one shot we'll have," Markus said. "Once Muse and James have caught the attention of Atlas, they lead him outside the city, and then miss Lake must prevent the rest of the guards from following."
"Won't that be dangerous?" James asked.
"Atlas is the only dangerous one," Markus replied. "You attack him, he's not going to hold back any... but the rest of the guard, even those who were in his crew in the past, won't fight to kill, and they're going to have a hard time capturing miss Lake, I believe."
"I should be able to do that," Mirise said.
"The only danger to you will probably be if Muse and James fails to defeat Atlas, but... if that happens, we're all in serious danger."
"Well, that's certainly not discouraging at all," James replied.
"Scared?" Muse asked.
"You shut up."
"I trust you two can handle it," Markus said. "Now, when it comes to Galt's mansion, we'll have to get past the dogs first..."
"So I'll lure them away while you make it in?" Rink asked.
"Well, not exactly..."
"This waiting is driving me nuts," James said.
"Join the club," Muse replied.
"It's driving you nuts too?" James asked.
"No, but you are."
"Will you... will you quit that?"
"When I have a reason to," Muse replied.
"Fine," James said. "Are you ready with the-"
"Yes," Muse stated.
"I can't believe we're actually doing this," James said and turned to Mirise. "What have we gotten ourselves into?"
"Doing the right thing," Mirise replied. "I don't know if this is what I'm meant to do... but I have to do it."
"Someone's reasonable," Muse commented.
James sighed. "So, for real... what's the plan for fighting this guy? It's not like our fighting styles have much in common, you with your bow and me with... well, a knife and a gun."
"Do you know anything about hunting?" Muse asked.
"Not really, no," James replied.
"One method of hunting involves using a decoy to lure the target," Muse explained. "Getting it into position, so the hunter can take their shot."
"So what does that have to do with-" he started before coming to a realization. "Oh, no. No, no no. You're not serious."
"And for this game, I'm the hunter... you're the decoy."
"When did I agree to that?"
"When you agreed to help us."
"I should have known there was a catch," James said. "Mirise? Little help here?"
"You should trust her," Mirise said. "You're never going to win if you can't cooperate."
"But... being a decoy?"
"To a degree," Muse said. "I'll be part of the fight too... but against an enemy like Atlas, I need openings. That's your job, to give me those."
"Just so you know, if this gets me killed, I'm going to haunt you for the rest of your life."
"If one of us die, we all do. Probably."
"Is that supposed to reassure me?"
"Still being the ray of sunshine, I see," James said and rolled his eyes.
"You're not really lifting our spirits either," Muse replied.
"I didn't think you had any to lift."
"Do I have to separate you two?" Mirise asked.
"Let's just go over the details of how we're going to do this again..."
"Wouldn't it be better to intercept him on the way, before there's any risk that the other guards would notice?" James asked.
"It would if it was an option," Markus replied. "We've tracked him as well as we've been able to without being noticed... he takes different routes back all the time."
"The only thing we can be sure of is that he always goes to the guard station," Muse continued.
"So what's the time frame we're looking at?" Rink asked.
"From Atlas leaving Galt's place... most of our investigations points to it taking between seven and twelve minutes until he gets to the station," Markus explained.
"That's... kind of a large interval."
"It's the best we have."
"Okay, so we get his attention when he returns... then what?"
"Get him out of town," Markus replied. "We want to keep as few people as possible from getting involved... and that's why miss Lake is going to be between Atlas and the rest of the guards."
"Wait... I hear something," Rink said quietly.
"Atlas?" Markus asked.
"Hold on..." Rink said and closed her eye, not that it was very noticeable under the mask. "Door opening, dogs barking a little... someone large is stepping outside."
"Atlas," Markus whispered.
"So now..." Rink said.
"We wait. Can you tell how far away he'll be?"
"To a degree," Rink replied. "The farther away he gets, the less I can tell... but it's going to be impossible to know when he's gone far enough to not hear the dogs barking."
"We'll just have to wing it," Markus said. "As long as Atlas doesn't notice what we're doing here and Galt doesn't notice what the others are doing in town..."
"I just hope they'll be able to work together," Rink said.
"They promised," Markus replied.
"For whatever that is worth... well, the door's been closed, I hear him walking around inside."
"Alright... now wait until he's upstairs."
Rink nodded and closed her eye, listening closely to what went on inside the building. There wasn't a lot of movement going on, but she could pick up on Galt walking around, probably getting a glass of water, and eventually starting to walk up a set of stairs.
"He's going to the second floor..." Rink whispered. "He's up."
"Can you still hear Atlas?"
"No... he's big, he takes long steps. Hopefully he won't care if he can hear the dogs barking now..."
"That's the best we have. Wait another minute, then do it."
"Mhm," Rink said and silently counted to sixty before yelling - with no apparent sound. The guard dogs in front started barking quite a bit, pulling on their leashes. Galt's bodyguards gave each other a quick glance before they started letting the dogs lead the way. As they rounded the corner, Rink did her best feline impression, making sure it was loud enough that the guards could hear it but hard to tell from where it came.
"Just a cat," one of the guards commented. They looked around, but as they could spot nothing and the dogs had already calmed down, they returned to their usual place by the front door - which was soon opened from the inside by Galt.
"What's this noise?" he asked.
"It was just a cat, sir," the other guard replied. "Our apologies."
"Very well," Galt said before returning inside.
"Okay, next?" Rink asked Markus.
"When he's going up the stairs," he replied.
Rink kept listening - and repeated the imaginary cat routine, this time when Galt was halfway up the stairs. She did this three more times, with different intervals, but always when Galt was either on the second floor or on his way to it. Every time they moved a short distance, to make it appear that the cat was moving around. Galt didn't return down to talk to the guards every time, but the final time, he was clearly annoyed.
"Oh, get this racket to stop," he said. "If it's just a cat, put them in their enclosure and let them bark all they want."
"As you wish, sir," one of the bodyguards said and took both the leashes, leading the dogs towards an area in the far end of the garden with a higher wire fence and a gate.
"Alright, this is probably our chance," Markus said and took out a rope with a hook. "Keep them barking!"
"Alright..." Rink said and unleashed the sound that only the dogs could hear again, this time keeping it up for longer, throwing in the occasional meow. The dogs kept on barking as they were led further away, as Markus jumped over the fence and tossed the hook up towards the window, snagging the bottom of it - a sound that couldn't be heard over the barking.
"That's as good as it's going to get, quick!" Markus whispered and started climbing. As the window wasn't locked, opening it wasn't any trouble, and Rink followed, slipping inside just as the dogs got too far away to mask what they were doing. Markus pulled up the rope behind him and closed the window. They seemed to be in the second landing, with the stairs down to the first floor close by, and two doors in the other direction - one of which Rink could tell led to a room currently inhabited by Galt.
"He's over there," she whispered to Markus and pointed at the door in question.
"Well," Markus said, "that was the easy part..."
"So we go in," Markus said. "If everything goes according to plan..."
"Is that before or after we annoy Atlas?" James asked.
"It's probably the best if it's before, to minimize the risk of Galt finding out that something's going on," Markus replied. "Best would be if you've then attacked him before I get to Galt... but that's going to be hard. As long as they're kept apart... if he gets a chance to help Galt, we're gonna have problems."
"So don't screw it up," Muse said, looking at James.
"Right back at you," he replied.
"You still sure it should be those two working together?" Rink asked Markus.
"Starting to see what you mean, but yes," Markus replied. "Anyway, I'll confront Galt, and it's likely he'll call for his guards to come inside, and then you have to keep them from reaching him and me."
"Use any means you have to, but... try to avoid killing them if you can."
"I hear that."
"Same goes for miss Lake when it comes to keeping the rest of the town guard away from Atlas... and that part's going to be less predictable in general," Markus explained. "Hopefully, they won't come at you all at once."
"With what you told us about the layout of the area, I think I have some ideas," Mirise said.
"Wouldn't it be better to just shoot him while we have the element of surprise?" James asked.
"Won't work," Muse said. "He's a lot more perceptive than he seems."
"I think I see him," Mirise said, peeking around a corner two buildings down from the guard station. With the three of them placed in strategic spots, they had been trying to keep watch over all potential ways Atlas could approach the guard station. Today, he had taken a direct, if slow, route - nine minutes and thirty-eight seconds had passed since he left Galt's mansion. Muse and James quickly moved over to Mirise, to see what she had found.
"That's Atlas alright," Muse confirmed.
They had said he was large, and that was no lie - Atlas would tower over any normal person, being over two metres tall and seemingly almost as wide, a lot of which seemed to be muscle. He was dressed in an oversized version of the red uniform worn by the other town guards, with golden buttons and black shoulder pads, white pants and black boots. He was surprisingly clean-shaven, with very short, dark yellow hair only at the top of his head. In his left hand, slung over his shoulder, was indeed an anchor. A coiled chain was hanging from his belt, at his right hip.
"Okay... this is it," Muse said. "Before he actually gets into the guard station... Mirise, you back off for now."
"Sure," Mirise said and started moving towards the spot she had picked out for her next task.
"James, ready..." Muse said as she drew an arrow and nocked it in her bow. James, slightly begrudgingly, covered his eyes and mouth with the goggles and surgical mask as Muse took aim. At least this part wasn't necessarily something that needed to be perfect right away...
"Ready," James said.
"Here we go..." Muse fired her arrow, aiming at the wall closest to Atlas rather than Atlas himself, as well as she could from her current angle. It flew through the air and struck the wall, in such a way that Atlas would hopefully notice it... which he certainly did.
"Huh?" he exclaimed and looked in their direction. "What is this?"
"Atlas!" James exclaimed, having stepped out so that he was in plain sight for Atlas. Muse, on the other hand, had stepped back (after pulling the mask down over her face), so all Atlas saw was James, with his helmet and face covers. He had pulled his dagger, and pointed it towards Atlas.
"...who are you?" Atlas asked.
"The one who's going to take you out," James replied and pulled his pistol, aiming at Atlas who had already started moving towards him.
"A troublemaker?" Atlas said. "I'll deal with you!"
"C-come on," James said and moved around the corner, holstering the pistol and setting off running towards the town limits. Atlas wasn't far behind and closing in, given his longer legs. Muse had already exited the city, and if she followed what they had agreed on, would be waiting... and Mirise was in position for her part, and would hopefully not be noticed by Atlas.
"Captain!" came a voice from where Atlas had followed James. Atlas stopped only momentarily before resuming his pursuit, without so much as a word. "Let's follow!"
James did not in any way acknowledge the voice, but thought he vaguely recognized it - which wasn't strange, as it was the same guard that had been leading the squad that encountered them in the alley a few days before. Three other guards were behind him as they started following Atlas and James.
They were two buildings away from the edge of the city, which James and Atlas had already crossed, when water suddenly splashed down right in front of them seemingly from the sky. They stopped momentarily before something else descended in front of them, almost resembling a ghost. Face covered by a white mask with a beak, body mostly covered by a white coat ending at the ankles, feet bare.
Mirise landed in a crouch before looking up at the group in front of her. Four of them, all with spears... she could take this. She already had a good amount of water, but left it still for now.
"Wha-" one of the guards exclaimed. "Who are-"
"I cannot allow you to proceed any further," Mirise said, trying to sound as intimidating as possible.
"Move aside!" the one in front said.
"Not happening," Mirise replied.
"We can take them out," another guard said and started advancing with his spear pointing forwards.
"You wish," Mirise said and watched his movements. If they were all like this, she wouldn't even have to use any effort - she stepped to the side, shifted her water slightly when he was on top of it, and easily grabbed his arm as he started slipping. She wrested the spear away from him, grabbing it in her right hand, and pushed him back towards the rest of the group. "Is that all you have to offer?"
"Alright," the guard in front said and took a few steps towards Mirise, casting a glance behind her to spot Atlas as well. "I can see that there's something going on here tonight. I will handle this... this apparition. The rest of you, make sure that the citizens are safe!"
"What about Atlas?"
"Our captain is stronger than all of us... he can handle himself. The citizens are the most important for now!"
"What about mayor Galt?"
"He has his own bodyguards, and his residence is secure. Patrol the town to make sure that no one is in further danger!"
"As you wish, sir," the guards replied in unison as they left.
"Well then..." the guard said as he looked back to Mirise and started approaching her. "Maybe you'd like to tell me what's going on here."
"And then... there's one last favour we're going to have to ask of you," Markus said.
"...yes?" Rink said.
"After this is all said and done... we can't remain on Kurita. We have to run."
"Won't that make you even more suspicious?" James asked.
"Most people don't even know us," Markus replied. "And even if it's to help Kurita... it's not something that's going to be forgiven."
"We... we don't have any mode of transport ourselves. So..."
"You want us to take you away from here," Rink said.
"Yes... you have a ship, so we hoped..."
"We're running out of room as it is," James stated.
"Just... just to the next island, we can take it from there..."
"We can do that, can't we?" Rink asked James who mostly sighed.
"Alright, fine," he said. "To the next island."
"Thank you... I can't express how much all of this means to me..."
"This is it," Markus told Rink. "This is the one shot we get. Thanks for everything... and good luck."
"I don't need it," Rink said and pulled the hood over her head as she moved to the top of the stairs. The bodyguards were still outside. Galt was currently not in his office - the door to which was open - and, according to Rink, most likely in the bathroom across the hallway from the office in question.
"Once and for all..." Markus said to himself as he slowly and silently walked into Galt's office.
It wasn't too large of a room. A fairly big desk with a large chair behind it and two smaller chairs in front, some bookshelves, a filing cabinet. The walls were sparsely decorated, with maps of North and West Blue and a Marine flag being the only things catching Markus's eye. There was a single window looking out over the town of Kurita, and not a lot of light - although some of that could be explained by it currently being night, it didn't seem like it'd be very bright of a room even during the day.
Markus looked around. Well, it was obvious where he'd hide - and hope that Galt would come back to the office. That there still were a bunch of papers and a pen lying on the desk made that seem likely. As the door was facing the desk and opened inwards, Markus placed himself behind it... and waited.