We have such plans for you.
The words echoed in the back of Marise’s thoughts, a constant thrum that pressed at the base of her skull. She crossed the street, holding her damaged hand against her chest as she tried to keep her head down, stay under the radar. The rain had stopped, but now she had to keep moving. Somehow, she’d remained undetected amongst all the upper crust pedestrians as she’d spread the symbol. She was maybe two blocks from the last building she’d converted to her cause and, while it was still shifting from cerulean to vermilion, she wanted to put as much distance between her and that stranger as she could.
She hadn’t waited to find out what his plans were, instead she’d booked it out of there, not content to serve any one master now that she’d discovered how to get her art out there. In the intervening hours, she’d been hard at work, using the cut in her hand to spread the image. She tackled more than a dozen buildings, though she didn’t stay long enough to see them fully transformed. She ached for that surge of power, to touch the vein and gain that knowledge once more, but she also knew that the longer she stayed, the more likely he would show.
She had enough problems scrambling after her that she didn’t need to court another set with some stranger. She’d already put her lot in with Raine, and she’d regretted it every moment since.
Marise spotted a noodle stand along the edge of the street, with three patrons sitting under its awning. She took a deep breath, checked her pocket for the remnants of her stained money from the tattoo. Her stomach rumbled and she opted to take the risk to get some food.
As she took the last stool, she laid out a few dollars and mumbled an order.
The conversation between the others was animated, exuberant. She cast a quick look at them, at their youthful, fresh faces. One of the teens caught her glance, screwed up her face, then went back to her conversation. Marise turned back to the empty spot in front of her. Her hand ached. She clenched it, the fingers slipping into the open cut on her hand.
She breathed out sharply, then grabbed a handful of napkins and tucked it into her palm. Quietly, she opened one and fashioned it into a makeshift bandage. The old man working the counter pushed a bowl in front of her. As she turned her focus to the food, she wondered when she had last slept. Not just rested, but actually slept comfortably. She picked up her fork slowly, realizing that she couldn’t remember when. The thought made her want to cry, but she bit back the tears and began to eat.
The fluorescent bulbs dimmed, flickered, and the air changed, becoming somehow thinner. A dull roar filled the space around her, as if circling the stand. She didn’t dare look up. She kept her head bowed, raking another mouthful of the steaming noodles into her mouth. And, as quickly as the strangeness had started, everything returned to normal. Except the three teens had gone.
Marise let out a sigh of relief now that the rain had dissipated and she was alone.
A man in an immaculate white suit took the seat next to her.
Her body tensed at the casual name drop. She turned to see the stranger, his white jacket unbuttoned, revealing the blue pinstripe shirt and a white tie. With his eyes closed, he ran a hand through his auburn hair, tousling it a bit as he did so.
When he opened his gold-flaked eyes again, then locked on Marise, as if he’d been tracking her even with them shut. “You know, it’s rude to keep calling me and then running off without staying for a chat. If I didn’t know better,” he flashed a devilish smile, “I’d say you were avoiding me.”
Marise coughed and sputtered as she tried to force down the mouthful of noodles. They caught in her throat for a moment, causing her to gag as if she were swallowing raw fish. After she recovered, she turned to him. “I’m not interested in your fucking plans. I can do this on my own.”
“Oh, of that I’m sure,” the man said.
Marise’s brow furrowed at this. “Then why are you following me?”
“I’ve got a proposition for you. You’ve been under the influence of . . . well, a deluded party. You’ve recently piqued my interest, due to your abilities.”
“So I should be honored?”
“To be honest with you, you weren’t my first choice.”
“Flattery will get you everywhere.”
“Let me finish,” he said, his tone harsh and commanding. “But I think you are infinitely more qualified.”
The man waved over the attendant, who, up until this point, had seemed dazed, ignorant of their conversation. “I’ll have what she’s having,” the man said. He didn’t even offer up any money, but the worker dutifully made him a bowl.
“As I was saying,” the man continued, “I’ve seen your situation go from bad to worse. All in an effort to protect Raine.”
Marise hadn’t realized she’d been relaxing until Raine’s name, then her body tensed in response all over again. Her joints ached as she let out a breath.
“He does seem to have that effect.” The man coiled a lump of noodles around his fork, lowered them into his mouth like a snake devouring its prey.
“Are you an Officer?” Marise whispered.
The man looked at her, his head tilting to its side in an unnatural movement, then he laughed, doubling over. It sounded wrong, harsh, clipped, like a bubble popping. He composed himself, smoothing out his hair as he straightened once more. “Not even close. But I appreciate your caution. That’s probably what has kept you alive for so long.”
Marise didn’t like the way the conversation was progressing. It seemed like this man had been following her for far longer than the rooftop, but she kept searching her memory to place him. No matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t reconcile his crisp appearance with anything she’d experienced over the last week. “Then what are you?”
“An interested party,” he said. The gold sheen on his eyes caught her attention, drawing her deeper into his words. “But let me just say, we are prepared to offer you a deal.”
“Nothing ever comes easy,” she said, warily.
“That’s true.” The man nodded. “But this is about the easiest you’ll have it.”
“I’m not saying I’m interested,” Marise cautioned. “But what exactly do you have in mind?”
“Just keep spreading that image of yours, but we’d like you to have a more directed approach, rather than the scattershot way you’ve been going about. We understand you’ve been left alone for quite some time, but let us be your inspiration.”
“How long have you been following me?” Marise froze as the words left her mouth. She’d been wrestling with this idea, but hadn’t meant to ask.
That toying smile flashed across his face again. “Does it really matter?”
“Yes,” Marise said carefully. “I think it does.”
“We first caught sight of you in the coffee shop. When Raine came over.”
Marise searched the scene, but couldn’t place them. “I didn’t see you.”
“We excel at that.”
She shook her head. “And I excel at noticing things. You were not there.”
“We tend to cling to the shadows.”
“Why do you keep saying we?”
The man shook his head. “You and I, we’ve lost the thread of this conversation. I am here to offer you a deal.”
“I’m not sure I want a deal from you,” Marise said, her hands clenching. Blood began to seep through the napkins.
His eyes flicked to her hand, then back to her face. “Fair enough. But at least hear me out before you make up your mind.” Marise began to protest. “Please.”
Marise settled back in her chair, unease running its course through her body. Something was not right here and she couldn’t put her finger on it. She looked at the noodle worker, but he had a vacant expression as he tended to the food. Marise tried to turn her head to look at the rest of the concourse, but found herself unable to do so. Her eyes kept drifting back to the man in the white suit.
“I’m going to be completely honest with you here. Raine is in trouble. Worse than you could imagine. He’s got himself tangled with gods and they aren’t that willing to accept new company. You and I are his last defense. That symbol you’ve got there, it dilutes the old god’s power and will allow Raine to join their ranks. As it stands right now, the moment they find him, our friend will be eliminated. Now, if you spread that image, you’ll be the mortal embodiment of everything we’re trying to do — to let Raine ascend and continue living.”
“So, essentially, you want me to become his prophet.”
“Not his, necessarily, but yes, a prophet in a manner of speaking.”
She shook her head. “Prophets are usually sacrificed.”
This caught him up short. After a brief pause, he licked his lips. “We can avoid such things.”
“From the sounds of it, you hadn’t accounted for my survival. Some deal.” Out of reflex more than anything else, she reached for her bag, then remembered she’d lost it in the transition to the upper districts.
The man’s gaze followed her movement. He reached out, placing a steadying hand on her arm. The tattoos on her hands lit up from behind, glowing as if she’d touched one of the changed veins.
Before she could speak, she felt that same spark travel through her. She caught the faintest glimpse of all the buildings she’d touched, then it was stripped away as the man pulled his hand away. She looked up at him, panic etching her features as she wanted that again, that feeling.
“Forget the prophet thing,” the man said, his eyes locking with hers. “That’s the old way of doing things. Instead, let’s just state what this is, upfront and go no further. This is about the art. This is about getting it out there, changing the city with art rather than fighting, to infect the city with an idea.” He tapped his temple. “And I can help you with that.”
“How?” she asked.
He didn’t smile. With the curve of his mouth a somber line, he leaned over and pointed to Na Creidmhigh. “I need you to place it there.”