None of the other runners noticed when he joined them, keeping pace with the others. There was something about this man that seemed familiar, especially to those who had been running marathons for years. The cameras would catch him as he jogged, but no one ever saw him start and no one ever saw him finish. For those who had seen the runner, there was no question who he was. He always encouraged the others, pushing them to finish the race. He had made it once, and they would too.
When they looked through the pictures, through the whole history of the sport since the invention of the camera, they found the same man running with the pack. He wore a number in every race and that number was never on the registered list of runners. They’d looked in every marathon, even when there were two races on one day. And there he was. They called him the Runner, but he had once had a name.
He burst into the assembly, just another soldier from the Athenian army. He bore news from the battle but all he could do was cry out one word, declare their victory. Then he fell to the stones of the floor, dead. He was the messenger. He was the runner. He was Philippides and his was the marathon.
She had read and reread all the old stories until she was sure. This was the best way, it had to be. And that was what brought Alexa out into the hills on Midsummer’s Night. She crept past the fires, past the dancing and the reveling, past the laughter and the cheer. These fires were not mortals fires. This was where the Fair Folk came to spend their evening in the mortal world. Her business was not with them. Once she’d gotten beyond them and felt the strange shifting as the mortal world fell away and the Otherworld rose up to catch her, she relaxed. Now all she had to do was find the specific hall she sought.
It was the cries of an infant that guided her through the twisting maze of corridors. Entering the long room, she found two lines of bassinets, each holding a small baby and all watched over by a few young women who were as human as she. That drew a tight smile to her lips. It was exactly as the stories had said. Her plan would work.
“Little Kieran is fussing again,” said one girl, her tone distant and almost distracted.
It was the same with all of them, their eyes were far away and they seemed only half here. Alexa took a deep breath and reached out to touch the woman who had spoken.
“I have it.”
She scooped the crying babe up into her arms, wrapping him in his blanket. For a moment, she just stood there and marveled at his tiny pointed ears and the smile that came to his face as she brushed his dark curls back. One last time, she looked around before turning her back to the room.
Alexa ran into the night, back the way she had come until the mortal sky was over her head and the sun was rising. She had played the Faerie games and she had won. She had stolen a Faerie child away to be her son.
The hounds bayed as they charged through the woods chasing the scent they had been trained to. Hot on their heels rode a throng of hunters astride their mounts. They laughed and whooped as they jumped and wove through the trees. The fox ahead of them scrambled and tore blindly through the litter and the mast, making for some desperate safety. Had anyone been near enough, though, they would have seen the cunning grin on the creature’s face for what it was.
As they broke into a clearing just behind the vulpine creature, the riders found themselves feeling odd, almost adrift. Then they heard the baying of something far larger, far older, than their hounds. And the creatures who voices this howl were behind them. One rider turned to look and his shirt blossomed crimson. It turned all to chaos as the others took in the sight of the black fletched shaft that had sprouted from his chest.
That far older hunt charged out of the darkness as the younger riders turned and fled. And one man, crimson of hair, pointed of ear, and cunning of grin, stepped out from behind a tree to watch his fellows pass. He’d done his task well, luring their prey to them so they might hunt as they had for centuries.
The girl jogging down the street pulled her jacket tighter around her against the chill of the night air. Every bit of light reflected in the glassy surfaces of the buildings around her made her jump, looking like the bright glare of the security bots that patrolled this part of the city. She had to get home before anyone or anything processed that she was out past her age bracket’s curfew. The hood chafed against her long pointed ears, but it was necessary. Those made her stand out, even in this district. Too many of the stories about Speakers starred an elf, too many elves alone disappeared. Better she be thought to be a vandal or a thief than potentially a Speaker. Not, of course, that anyone outside the Corps believed in the Speakers anymore.
The voice was a hoarse whisper from a nearby alleyway. Turning to look, Mia smiled with relief.
The human woman was in her late 50s, her hair going gray and her face lined. Her clothing was plain and dark, meant to allow her to hide in the shadows. She grabbed Mia by the arm.
“You’re late, girl. Come on, we need to get home before-”
“Halt, Citizens. Provide identification chips.”
Neither Shannon nor Mia had an identity chip logged with the city, it would have meant risking people finding out about Mia’s powers. Shannon shoved Mia.
Mia didn’t hesitate, she was off and running before she even really thought about it. Vaulting over a low wall, she jumped to a ladder and started scrambling upwards. Her only thought was escape until she heard the unmistakable boom of the air heating and expanding as a fireball erupted on the surface level behind her. Mia froze. She couldn’t be sure. It could have been Aunt Shannon using a self-defense spell. It could have missed. It could have…it could have… Then she heard the screams. That was enough to send her off running again, half-blinded by the tears in her eyes.
The sun was coming up when the shaking in Mia’s legs finally got the better of her and she collapsed, the tears streaming down her cheeks. She couldn’t control the shaking or stop the tears. For the first time since she’d been a baby, Mia was alone.
“Why should I care about some snot-nosed brat with no experience whatever?”
Mason Laverty hung his wrench back up on the wall behind his worktop and turned to face his best friend.
“Because, you idiot, she’s a Speaker. A real, honest to goodness Speaker.”
“Are you serious?”
“Completely.” Jarrel Carson rubbed his hands together excitedly. “All untrained, but a Speaker.”
The mechanic shook his head, curls bouncing and disbelief clear on his face.
“How did they miss her?”
“I don’t know. All Shan left me in the data cores was the kid’s name and picture, but are you going to judge the uptimes of a borrowed carpet?”
“We’ll have to teach her and neither of us knows a lick about that side of the magic…”
“And no one knows what happens if you teach a Speaker to Enchant.” Jarrel’s grin was wicked. “So let’s try.”
“We gotta find her first, you ass.”
“But what about the fish, Mother?”
Marius Veranius interrupted his mother as she told him tales of the gods and heroes before he went to bed. The little boy sat up, blanket clutched tightly as he looked in horror at his mother. She blinked, trying to understand her son’s sudden fear.
“Marius? What do you mean?”
“If the stars are fish when they sleep, then what about the fish that we get from the market? What if we ate a star for dinner?”
His brown eyes were huge in his small tanned face and Domitia paused, deep in thought.
“I think, my little one, that the gods would protect the stars from our nets. At least, the ones that aren’t clever enough to escape on their own.”
Marius bounced excitedly.
“Do you think so, Mother?”
“I do.” She tousled his hair and kissed his forehead. “Now get to sleep, my son. The word around the market is that Legio IV is only a day’s march from home. Do you know what that means?”
“Father is coming home!”
Domitia laughed as her son snuggled down into the blanket and grinned up at her.
“Can we go meet them when they get back? Will there be a parade? Do you think Father’s General will get a Triumph?”
“So many questions! We’ll go see them tomorrow, Marius, and we’ll find the answers to all your questions.”
There exists a place where every book dwells, a place beyond time and space, just past the last shelf in every library. The doors there aren’t hard to find, but they are hard to open. If you can make it through the portal, though, you will find the mother library, the greatest and the first, the seed from which all others sprout. No one knows what the mother library looks like from the outside since the doors lead only back to the times and places patrons have come from, but within the hallowed halls of the mother library are shelves as far as the eye can see, bearing every manner of written word since time immemorial. On the farthest shelves lay stones with pictures painted on, then clay with simple carvings. There are racks of scrolls and shelves of leather-bound tomes, and now server racks replete with data.
No one knows who the woman is who runs the mother library, or how long she’s been there. Some of the histories in the mother library reference her, though the authors had no idea where they were. But every time someone falls through the stacks to the mother library, she is there to guide them. The descriptions of her never change, no matter how much time passes, no matter where the library’s patrons come from.
Alex stretched and adjusted his glasses. There was a mystery slowly spreading itself out across his desk, mixed into the research he’d been pouring over for the past two years. What had started out as the necessary research for a book detailing the greatest disasters in history had turned into a manhunt. It had started with photos of survivors from the Hindenburg, with a young woman off to the side helping. He’d seen her before. And there she was, in shots of the Titanic putting out to sea. And again, as the survivors of the Lusitania were rescued. This same woman was in every picture spread out across his desk, at least one from each disaster since the advent of photography. It was impossible to mistake her after seeing her image so many times, especially in the more recent shots in full color. Bundling it all up, Alex reached for his tumbler and swirled the contents around before he took a long swig. Was it too much to assume coincidence at this point? Maybe a familial connection and nothing more? But no, there she was again in the video from two bombings and a shooting in the past year. And they weren’t even on the same continents on top of having been within a week of each other. Nothing made sense. On reflection, that was why he’d planned tomorrow’s trip back to his alma mater for a long chat with one of his favorite history professors. Maybe together they could make something of this whole mess and this brunette with her tired, almost haunted gray eyes could finally stop plaguing him.
Leaning back in his seat, Alex looked out the window at the ground below as it pulled away. Just a few hours and he’d be back on the ground. By the end of the day, he might even have his answers.
“Excuse me, Sir? Would you like a drink?”
“I’d love a ginger ale.”
He smiled up and found himself looking into those gray eyes he knew so well. The young woman, her brown hair in a tight bun, handed him a plastic cup full of soda and smiled.
“Enjoy your flight, Sir.”