In the Darkest Night

Patti O'Shea

Tor Books

CHAPTER  1
Farran put the last bottle of shampoo on the shelf, broke down the box, and pushed her cart over the gray­ish linoleum to the toothpaste aisle. One of the wheels emitted a sharp squeak that grated on her nerves, but she grit her teeth and ignored it. There  were three differ­ent brands to stock  here and that should keep her busy until break time, which was— she glanced at her  watch— in exactly nineteen minutes.
She opened the box of Crest gel and began .lling the empty spot on the shelf. Until she’d started working  here, she’d never owned a watch. The Tàireil  were in tune with the Earth, even when it  wasn’t their dimension, and she’d always had a good idea of what time it was. If she needed to be more precise, there’d always been the clock on her cell phone, but all that had changed. Farran  couldn’t af­ford a phone  now— not that she had anyone to  call— and this discount chain was obsessive about punctuality. The watch had an ugly yellow plastic strap and looked as cheap as it was, but it kept her from getting .red and that was all that mattered.
To her chagrin, she needed this lousy job. It barely paid above minimum wage and didn’t offer health insurance, but no one  else would hire her. Not after they got a look at her face.
Reaching up with one hand, she touched her right cheek and traced two .ngers across the skin. It was smooth, but thick and uneven, and it stood out in stark contrast to the softness of the rest of her face. The scar was  hideous— Farran knew  it— but she  couldn’t .x it. She wanted  to—oh, how she wanted  to— but her magic wasn’t strong enough for the task and it  wasn’t as if she could ask someone to heal it for her.
Finished with the gel, she moved down the row to the next brand of toothpaste and began putting the Colgate on the shelf. The .uorescent lights made the scar even more noticeable, but she  couldn’t avoid them.
A crash from a couple of rows over made her jerk and Farran drew a deep breath before reaching for more packages and placing them in their spot. What ever had been knocked over had an orange scent to it and it grew stronger the longer she stood there. She moved faster, wanting to get out of the area before the smell made her gag.
“But, Mom,” came a whiney voice in the next aisle, “I’m supposed to text Veronica in .fteen minutes. We have to go home now.”
“We’ll leave when I have everything on our list.”
“I don’t know why I had to come anyway or why you wouldn’t let me bring my phone. Other kids get to carry their phones with them all the time.” The voice became less audible, sounding as if the pair had moved into the main aisle and away from Farran.
This was what her life had come  to— listening to com­plaining teenagers and smelling some putrid orange cleaning product while she stocked shelves for a pittance. It was pathetic.
Farran checked her watch again. Eleven minutes until break. Dragging her feet, she wheeled the cart to the end of the aisle. She felt exposed  here, on display, and dipped her head forward, trying to use her hair to hide her cheek. It was longer than she used to wear it, but not long enough to offer the concealment she so desperately wanted.
She focused on her task, doing her best to ignore the shoppers wheeling their  gray- plastic carts past where she stood, trying to pretend that she didn’t see them look over a second time and stare until they were out of view. Farran wanted to .nish this last box now and .nd somewhere less visible to work.
Her hands shook and she inhaled deeply in an attempt to relax. Anxiety strummed through her and she tried to bring that under control, too. Despite her efforts, her breath shuddered out and she moved faster, trying to keep her focus on the job. How likely was it that most people cared about her? It was her imagination, her self-consciousness that made her feel as if she  were standing in a spotlight, but that  wasn’t reality.
The laughter made her muscles go rigid. It  wasn’t jovial,  we’re- having- a-good- time laughter. No, this was the nasty kind of laugh she’d heard too often over the last seven months. It was  mean- spirited and  cruel— like the people who thought that just because she didn’t look like them, she was fair game. After all, a freak with a scar on her face  couldn’t have feelings, right?
She picked the group up in her peripheral  vision— two men, three women, all around college age. The blonde was the ringleader, the sneer on her face contemptuous. Farran fumbled with the packages of toothpaste, sending them tumbling to the .oor. There was more laughter as she picked them up.
Go away. Please go away.
Her entire body began to shake and she tried to still it, not wanting them to know they had the power to dec­imate her. There was a gaping wound deep inside her, as if they’d sliced a cavernous gash into her soul and Far-ran could barely comprehend the casual viciousness.
It was hard, but she made eye contact with them, hop­ing it would humanize her and they’d leave, but that wasn’t what happened. The blonde raised her cell phone and took a picture of Farran’s scarred face.
That froze her, and for an instant, she  couldn’t react, couldn’t think. Then it dawned on her. That girl was go­ing to post the picture on the Web— Facebook, MySpace, or maybe some other  site— letting other malicious people laugh at her dis.gurement. It sucked the breath from her, the physical ache matching the one in her soul.
What did she do? How did she stop this? Did they think she wanted to look like this? That she didn’t wish with her  whole heart that her appearance was normal? Did they think that she was undeserving of being treated with the smallest modicum of kindness because she was different? Or did they believe she had no right to be out in public, repulsing the world with her face?
If Farran had a choice, she would hide. She hated think­ing about every place she went, wondering who would be there, how many people would see her or how they’d—
Miss Cold- Cruel- and- Shallow walked away, her en­tourage following in her wake. Oh, God! That picture. That picture!
Farran wanted to run after them, grab the cell phone, and erase the image, but her feet  wouldn’t move. She wanted to scream stop and threaten the woman with a lawsuit if the picture was used anywhere without per­mission, but her voice  wouldn’t work. She wanted to be powerful enough magically that she could successfully use her powers on electronic items, but she  wasn’t.
The urge to vomit swamped her, and she half hoped she would. Maybe that would relieve the sick, shaky feel­ing that had settled in her belly, but all her stomach did was roil. The worst thing was the realization that there was nothing she could do to prevent her photo from being plastered wherever that girl chose to put it. Nothing. Her stomach heaved again.
Tears welled, and biting her bottom lip, Farran blinked them back. She  wasn’t letting some girl make her cry. She  wasn’t!
Her exhale hitched and Farran swallowed hard. The group was still laughing and before they turned the cor­ner, the blonde looked back over her shoulder and gave a toss of her hair. Then they were gone.
Numbness kept the totality of her devastation at bay, but Farran felt her daze fading with each second that ticked by.
Choking back a sob, she blinked harder. God, she wished she could go back in time. If she could do it over, she’d work slower and stay away from the aisle until after that heartless woman and her friends  were gone. Closing her eyes, she balled her hands into .sts and whispered, “Just a couple of minutes— that’s all I need, please.”
Idiot, she berated herself, dropping her chin to her chest. Not even the strong Tàireil had control of time, and her magical power was so weak that she was limited to ordinary spells. And even some of those  were tough for her. Farran forced her .ngers to relax.
There was nothing she could  do— not a damn thing. She was on until closing; she had to get over this and survive the rest of the night. Had to. Farran gathered her courage, her resolve; she needed to return to work be­fore her boss saw her standing idle and .red her.
With one last deep breath, she opened her eyes. And frowned. She was in the middle of the toothpaste row, not on the end by the main aisle. Had she walked back­ward without being aware of it?
Shaking her head, Farran turned to move the cart back up the aisle to .nish stocking, but went still. She’d already shelved all the Colgate, but the box was full. Looking to her left, she expected to see the shelf .lled, but it  wasn’t. She stared at the empty spot and then back at the toothpaste.
A crash a couple of rows over made her jerk and suck in a sharp breath. She detected the slightest hint of orange in the air and that’s when it dawned on  her— the overpow­ering scent had been missing. Her hands shook harder and she wrapped them around the handle of the cart.
“But, Mom,” came a whiney voice in the next aisle, “I’m supposed to text Veronica in .fteen minutes. We have to go home now.”
“We’ll leave when I have everything on our list.”
“I don’t know why I had to come anyway or why you wouldn’t let me bring my phone. Other kids get to carry their phones with them all the time.”
Farran’s eyes went wide. This didn’t make sense— nothing made sense. If she didn’t know better she’d think she was replaying—
Stupid. She was being stupid. But she looked at her watch anyway. Twelve minutes to her break time.
Twelve minutes!
Her knees buckled and Farran locked them to keep from hitting the .oor. This  wasn’t possible.
Staggering to the back of the store, she pushed through the doors into the employees- only area and leaned against the wall. It wasn’t possible. This didn’t happen. No one traveled through time. No Tàireil, no matter how powerful, had ever been able to do it, and many had tried. There was no way she could have time traveled either.
No way.
Maybe the thing with that group was some kind of pre­cognitive event. Maybe it hadn’t happened yet and she’d mentally seen into the future. Never mind that her skills in that area  were as non existent as most of her other mag­ical abilities: that made more sense than her other idea.
The nauseating orange scent was strong enough to penetrate the stockroom and she swallowed hard. She’d been around talented Tàireil seers and few ever experi­enced an odor with their visions. Farran had.
She’d seen the store, the rows of toothpaste in front of her. She’d heard the sound of something breaking, the whining teenager. She’d felt the smooth packaging of the toothpaste boxes and the rough cardboard box they’d been contained in. The only sense she hadn’t ex­perienced was taste.
What were the odds that she’d suddenly developed prescience?
Slim and none, she knew, but to replay . . . Shaking her head, she ran through the timing of events to night. If she’d really gone backward a few minutes, that nasty group should be walking by the aisle any second. Of course, if she’d had a view of the future, they’d be pass­ing by any minute, too.
Farran’s legs trembled as she forced herself to cross to the door and peer out the yellowed plastic window.
No one was out there.
See? Just some brain stutter or her overactive imagi­nation.
Then Farran saw her, the blond girl who’d taken her picture and the girl’s friends. The emotion that shot through Farran was too strong, too violent, too immedi­ate to be caused by some manifestation of her imagina­tion or peek into the future. The scorn, the way they’d treated her had happened. It had really happened.
That meant—
Farran’s knees did give out then and she slid down the wall until she sat on the dirty .oor. Somehow, some way, she’d replayed a few minutes from her life and she had no idea how or why it had occurred.
Farran zipped up her Polarplus jacket as soon as she stepped outside the store and tipped her face up to the sky. The night was damp and cool, but she let it envelop her. She only wished she had an umbrella.
Her  friend— her former  friend— Shona would have chuckled and commented on how she could tell Farran wasn’t originally from Seattle, that no one  here both­ered with an umbrella for a little drizzle. Farran would have laughed with her and said something about how it was only good common sense to stay dry. It had become a standing joke in the months they’d been close.
Jamming her hands into her jacket pockets, she started walking. She missed Shona. Farran had never had many friends— she’d never really .t in the Tàireil world and here it was  worse—but she and Shona had been as close as sisters. If only Farran hadn’t been forced into her fa­ther’s scheme. If only she could have gotten the dracon­tias from Shona without her knowing Farran had been behind her loss of the dragon stone. If only.
Farran snorted quietly and slogged along toward the bus stop. There  weren’t a lot of people around, but the deep blue of her jacket helped her disappear into the dark­ness and she welcomed that. She wanted to barricade her­self in her apartment, to be somewhere that she  wouldn’t face ridicule.
Her .ngers came up and touched her scar, her thumb trailing just above it. That girl, her friends, their  cruelty— it had happened. And it hadn’t.
Farran  couldn’t .gure it out and she’d thought about it most of the eve ning. She hadn’t come up with any an­swers, but some things  were certain. One minute she’d stood on the end of the toothpaste aisle, staring after her tormenters, and the next minute she’d been midrow. She wasn’t able to wield a spell to rewind the clock, that was a given, so who was powerful enough to do such a thing and why had he done it for her?
It wasn’t a member of the Gineal. They couldn’t alter time any more than the Tàireil could. In fact, both soci­eties shared the theory that it was impossible to time travel or change the .ow in any way, that there was some natural law preventing it. Farran had accepted that, but after to ­night—
Someone was behind her.
She stiffened, her step hitching before she resumed her pace. Probably a human headed home the same way she was, nothing to worry about, but a shiver coursed through her. Farran moved faster and sensed whoever was back there pick up his speed, too. Not a coincidence, then; he was following her.
The streetlights seemed somehow dimmer and she looked around, hoping enough people  were around to de­ter the guy, but the sidewalks and road  were deserted now. The emptiness made the hair at her nape stand on end.
She took her hands from her jacket pockets and pulled some energy from the earth. It was a risk. Because the Gineal could track magic, she’d avoided using her pow­ers as much as possible. But if someone meant to mug her or worse, it would be her only defense.
Needing to know what ever she could about her stalker, Farran opened her senses and probed. Her heart froze for an instant, then pounded wildly. The energy she gathered fell away.
Demon. Oh, God, she had a demon after her!
Farran pulled more energy. She  couldn’t worry about humans seeing her or about the Gineal tracking her. Not now. She silently recited the incantation to open a transit.
Nothing happened.
Half running, she repeated the spell, this time aloud. The gate wouldn’t open.
The demon must have blocked her ability to create a transit. If she  were stronger, his containment spell wouldn’t work, but she  wasn’t. She  wasn’t, damn it. Grimly, Far-ran considered her odds of surviving a  one- on- one .ght. Almost zero. He was powerful enough magically that without a miracle, he’d easily beat her. While she could take on any human and win, even a minor demon would level her.
He gained on her and Farran panicked. She knew bet­ter, but she ran. There was no way to outdistance him, no place to hide. She kept going anyway, using all the speed she possessed. Her breathing became harsh and ragged, her .eld of vision tunneled, but she zigzagged wildly along the sidewalk to avoid getting hit. The de­mon didn’t fire at her.
Excerpted from In The Darkest Night by Patti O'Shea.
Copyright © 2010 by Patti J. Olszowka.
Published in April 2010 by Tom Doherty Associates, LLC.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and
reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in
any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.