Sneak peek: By the Numbers prologue (paranormal/fantasy)

So I started adapting something I wrote a while back; it’s kinda-paranormal, kinda urban fantasy erotic romance. It’s about 40,000 words long, and it’s a story about loss and coming back to life. And sex. Lots of sex.

The prologue doesn’t contain much sex at all, but I’ve been hammering at it for a while, and I’d really love your input. I’d love to know if you enjoy this bit, if it pulls you in at all, or if you have any questions about anything. So this bit’s just 3200 words or so. Let me know what you think!

By the Numbers

Prologue: Null Set

Jen had thought that the long drive up to the Hallorans’ would take away some of the ache, would leave her feeling less alone.

It hadn’t.

The wonderfully peculiar house, which usually made Jen smile with its turrets and circular windows, showed scars from the past week’s fighting. At least it was standing, unlike her own home. But neither Artemis nor her father was there. Mrs. Halloran, of course, had been gone for a while, and the quiet up here on the hilltop, which Jen usually found so peaceful and reassuring, felt merely empty.

Somehow, the emptiness here felt almost worse than the devastation down in the valley. From this point, Jen could see the black smudge at the top of the valley that marked where the Mountain was still burning after almost a week.

Where they had won. Where she had killed a man. Where two of her brothers had died. But where they had won. The townsfolk. If it could be called winning.

They had defeated the Marshals. Had defeated the band of incredibly strong ‘casters who had been supposed to protect North America’s largest magical community from danger, but who had become themselves the greatest threat.

Jen cast a warming spell on the stone steps and sat, her chin on her knees.

They were free. She knew she should be happy, but she felt only empty. Alone.

Jack was alive. That was some consolation. And most of her family — with the very large exception of John, who had died in the final battle, and Greg, the eldest, who had been a Marshal. But the others — her parents, and Bob, and Duncan — were all okay. And Artemis and Mr. Halloran, her dad.

She wished they were here. The living. The dead. Here at the Hallorans’, looking out over the town and the mountains, had been a favorite spot for all them to hang out, and as she sat on the damp stone, she found herself searching for some lingering sign of their presence, of their laughter.

None there. Only in her memory, which was as layered with images as a forest floor littered with leaves.

Who knew where Mr. Halloran was. And Artemis could be just about anywhere in this world or Outside.

John, Greg, Gabe’s sister Miri, all gone. Somehow, in this place, that was even more devastating than the image of Carter Pale gaping at her after she’d cast the spell that had eviscerated him, an image she knew would give her nightmares for the rest of her life. At least Marshal Pale hadn’t been able to fire off whatever evil curse he had been preparing to send at Jack.

Jack, still so strange and distant after the battle, sitting by the shattered front gates of the Mountain, looking up at her when they had both managed to stop crying and telling her, his green eyes flat and lifeless, “I don’t know who I am anymore.”

You’re Jack, she had wanted to yell. You’re my Jack

Professor Ross and her husband, dead on the steps of the school itself, right there.

Death and destruction, blood and terror, and somehow it didn’t feel as if they had won, even with the Marshals truly and finally defeated.

She had spent her whole life wrapped up in her brothers’ loves, their ambitions, their battles, their struggles, their friendships and their hates. She had rooted them on when they needed rooting and yelled at them when they needed yelling.

But none of it seemed to matter any more.

Greg, Johnny, Miri — all dead. And Auntie Priss. And her son Phillip, the poor, obnoxious bastard. And Professor Ross, and Bill Ross, and Professor Jones and Professor Ouellette, who no one had expected to fight on the town’s side, and Mrs. Kamananda, and Agent Parrish, who’d tried to get the Marshals back under control up until the end, and Michael, who’d been Jen’s first boyfriend, and Susan Oster, to whom he had gotten engaged just last month, and Theo Gianikas, and Liz MacMillan, and the Shook sisters, and the Wong brothers, and so many others. All dead. And Jack as good as.

And all of the love and joy that had warmed her way through the difficulties of the past six years like some sort of magical furnace was melted away, less substantial than the mist that was dampening the grass, and swirling through the tree limbs.

She felt rather than heard someone settling down behind her, smelt a mixture of vanilla and soot. “Hi, Artemis,” she said. “Just come from town, or from the school?”

“Yes,” said Artemis, airily, clearly either not quite listening or already on to the next part of the conversation – Jen was never sure which. “I was helping identify the bodies. I tried to show the mayor a very nice daemon that I found who would have managed it quite quickly.”

“Oh,” answered Jen. The town then. “Was she pleased?”

“Oh, I never presume to know what people are thinking. But she asked me not to, and she didn’t look particularly happy.”

“I bet not,” Jen sighed.

“For that matter,” said Artemis, “neither do you.”

“What?” Jen said. Turning around, she saw Artemis’s eyes gazing at her in that steadying, infuriating, knowing way that she had. “Oh, all right, yes, I’m not terribly happy.”

“Ghosts?” Artemis asked, who knew something about ghosts, spirits, and faeries.

“Yes, I suppose. But it’s more, you know, the absence that’s eating at me right now. I thought coming back up here would be coming back to all the laughter and the purpose… But it’s all just empty, you know?”

“I think so,” said Artemis.

“It’s like… I know you always saw the spirits that worked in the school, but when I finally saw them last year — ” After she and the rest of her summoning class had watched two of the Marshals murder Glady King. “ — the whole place seemed… less magical. More just a place. And now, to think about rebuilding, when there’s so much missing… It feels so…”

“Empty,” Artemis finished, and handed Jen a tattered handkerchief.

“I mean, what’s the point? Rebuild the buildings. Repair the fences. Recast the wards. Why? What does it matter? Go back to school if it ever opens again? Learn silly spells to turn yourself into a bat or make the lake turn purple? And so many people are just gone and it just all doesn’t seem to matter at all, what happens, what I do. I mean, what the hell is the point of it all?”

Artemis took back the handkerchief, limp and dry in Jen’s hand, and dabbed gently at Jen’s damp cheeks. “Oh, there is a point. I don’t know that we ever get to see it, but there is a point.”

Jen snorted. “What the hell is that supposed to mean?”

“When my mother died, I spent a lot of time thinking about the same sorts of things. Daddy, of course, wasn’t much help, because he was just as devastated as I was. The two of us would barely remember to eat. And what I came to realize was that there is more than just what you can see and feel and hear at work, more, even than what is Outside. That there is some sort of gigantic game being played out, and we’re only aware of part of it — that it goes on outside the realm of our senses and beyond our sense of time and place.” When Jen scowled at her, Artemis went on. “You know that what we’ve been trying to study at the Mountain, at all of the other schools of magic, all of it, is finally unknowable. Time, the future, space, the mind. Death. Love. These are dimensions that we can guess are there, but there’s no way to say, ‘Ah, this is how this works, this is what this means.’”

“You’re talking crap, Artemis.”

“Perhaps. But I’ve been thinking about this for a long time.” She looked out towards the lake, her pale eyes mirroring the overcast sky perfectly. “My mother used to say that the meaning of life was whatever you make of it. I never knew what she meant by that. But I think it had something to do with playing the game fully.”

Jen rubbed her temples. She hated it when Artemis got philosophical like this, because it left Jen feeling as if she were looking at the world through a wool scarf. “It’s not a game, Artemis.”

“But it is, Genevieve. You love playing soccer, don’t you?”

Jen shrugged bleakly.

Artemis stared out at the lake for a moment and then went on. “I never really cared much for it. It always seemed rather pointless, you know, a bunch of people running around, kicking the ball and kicking the ball back. But then, the year that you made the team, it all suddenly made sense to me. You have to pick a side for it to be any fun at all. You have to pick a side and pretend that it really matters: then it’s quite exciting.”

“Not most of the games we played that year,” groaned Jen.

Her friend simply continued. “It occurred to me that most things are that way. If you play the game fully, then there’s pleasure in the doing of it. Of course,” Artemis said, resting a hand lightly on Jen’s leg, “then you also get the pain of loss. But it all matters.”

Artemis’s strange eyes filled with tears. “You okay, Missy?” Jen asked, startled.

“Do you remember when my mother died?”

Jen nodded her head.

“You came over to play at my house every day for months. And I couldn’t play. To be honest, I think I was half of the way Outside Over There without even knowing it. But you would play in my room, giving my dolls tea parties, brushing their hair, brushing my hair… And I would just sit there and watch you. And listen to you. For months. And the stories that you were spinning began to whirl around in my brain, and all of a sudden, I found myself in the games, playing along with you… Genevieve, it was the nicest thing anyone ever has ever done for me. Even nicer than the time Tony gave me that cacodaemon horn and kissed me under the mistletoe.”

Jen didn’t have any idea what to say, so she looked down at Artemis’s hand splayed across her leg.

“I’d like to try to return the favor,” said her friend. “Come on, let me show you something,” and she pulled Jen to her feet and towards the nearby forest.

“Uh, Artemis, what…? Where are we going?”

“You’ll see,” Artemis said airily as they passed into the first trees in the tangled woods that lay behind her house.

Jen looked around nervously — she’d been here before, but never without at least one of her brothers, and Jack, and usually one of the teachers. “I don’t know if this is a good idea, Artemis, we’re not supposed — ”

“Last week,” Artemis said, an uncharacteristic look of determination on her face as she pulled Jen along a narrow track, “you fought off two shedu, and killed Marshal Pale when he was about to attack Jack from behind. At this time of day, I don’t think there’s anything in these woods that you need to be afraid of, apart from the thunderbirds. And the thunderbirds don’t come to this part of the forest often.”

Looking around, Jen was vaguely aware that they were, in fact, headed into the part of the forest where Professor Ouellette had carried out God knew what bizarre experiments — most creatures, mundane and magical, seemed to avoid the place on instinct. “Can’t blame them. Don’t know what old Owly did here, and I don’t think we want to know.”

“No,” Artemis agreed, and then she held up her hand. They had come to a clearing. “Ah! Genevieve, I’d like you to close your eyes for a little bit.”

Jen looked her friend dubiously; the determined expression was still lodged on Artemis’s face, however, so Jen merely shrugged. “I wish I’d never told you my full name. No one ever uses it.”

“I do,” said Artemis, infuriatingly — which made Jen want to laugh, thinking how angry her brother John used to get at Artemis. Which made Jen want to cry. Artemis put her spindly fingers over Jen’s eyes, and Jen dutifully closed the lids. “I think your name is lovely. Genevieve Kamimatsu. Lovely.” Artemis now lowered her hand and took Jen’s. “I’m going to lead you now. Don’t open your eyes.”

“But…” Jen began.

Artemis simply walked her forward. They were in the clearing, Jen knew, feeling the sunlight on her face and the thick buffalo grass pulling at her feet.

“Here,” Artemis said. “Kneel down.”

Still dubious, eyes still shut, Jen did as she had been told.

After a minute of silence, Artemis spoke. “Magic isn’t just funny words, and squiggles on parchment and disgusting brews and such. Magic is part of what we are, part of everything — not just the creatures and the magical folk, though we have the sensitivity and the power to use it, but everybody, everything. The magic is spread across the face of the earth, but nobody sees it.”

Jen felt a warm weight lay across her thighs — Artemis’s arm, she assumed.

“You should open your eyes now, Genevieve,” Artemis said, very softly.

Perplexed, Jen did so.

A unicorn, impossibly white, was kneeling beside her, its golden horn laid across Jen’s lap. A warmth flowed into Jen, filling an emptiness she had only begun to perceive. “Oh!”

Artemis’s hand rested lightly on Jen’s shoulder, then began to run gently though Jen’s hair.

Not so alone.

~*~

When Jen and Artemis returned to the Halloran’s house, Mr. Halloran was waving from one of the windows, but all that Jen could see was Jack, her Jack, standing stiff and solemn on the stone step where she had gone looking for something, someone that morning. Standing beside him was Tony, who was looking much less serious, and into whose arms Artemis ran.

Jen crooked her finger at Jack, teasing a small smile out of him and getting him to walk to her. Feeling more alive than she had done in forever, Jen wrapped herself in Jack, attempting to eliminate all separation between them. When she felt the heat begin at last to pour off of him, she whispered into his ear, “Just now I had a unicorn lay its horn in my lap, Jack.”

“Oh?” he murmured, searching her face.

“Uh-huh.” Jen felt an upsurge of feeling, of desire that she wouldn’t have believed herself capable of just an hour or two before. “It was magical. But that wasn’t the horn I wanted there.”

“No?”

“No. The whole virgin thing is just a myth, you know.”

Now Jack’s face took on the dark, fierce look that Jen loved best. He pulled her to him, kissing her as she had wanted to be kissed for a long time.

After a moment, however, she pulled back. “What’s that poking at me?”

Jack looked sheepish. “Uh…”

Laughing for what felt like the first time in her whole life, Jen howled, “Not that, silly!” You can poke me with that all you want! she thought, flicking a finger against the breast pocket of his leather coat, where something hard, sharp, and unconducive to Jen’s current mood had been pressing against her shoulder.

“Oh.” Solemnity descended onto Jack’s face in a heartbeat. He stepped back from her, and suddenly that cold feeling of emptiness flooded Jen’s middle again.

“Jack?”

Silently, he reached into the pocket and pulled out a pewter pentacle — a five-pointed star, with a pin on the back, bearing on the front the words Bureau of Magical Affairs and United States Marshal.

Jen stared at it.

“I don’t…” Jack began, and then shook his head. “Agent Benson, the new lady that the Bureau sent down, she offered me this, and I…”

As Jen tried to take in what he was saying, Tony said, “She offered me one too. And I think she wants to ask you too, Jen.”

Me?” Jen stared at Jack, her current boyfriend, and then at Tony, her former boyfriend, whose arms were still around a blithely smiling Artemis, and then back at Jack.

“You don’t have to, Jen,” Jack said, barely audible. “Not if you don’t want to.”

“But you do?” asked Jen, thinking You’re only eighteen! Why should you be responsible for everyone else! But even as she thought it, the knowledge flooded through her that yes, he would take responsibility for everyone. He always had. He always would. It was one of many reasons that she had fallen in love with him before she’d ever gone out with Michael or with Tony. It was one of many reasons she’d gone out with them instead.

Those haunted eyes pierced her. “I can’t not. You know that.”

Jen sighed. “Yeah.” She pulled him close again. “Yeah, I know.” She burrowed into his coat, into the Jack-ness of him. Tried not to think about Greg, who had died with one of those damned pewter badges on his chest. “You know,” she said, “the star’s out of your pocket, but there’s still something poking me.” She leaned back and took in his humiliation. Low and sultry, she added, just for his ears, “Want to poke me some more? I’d sure as hell like that.”

“O-okay,” spluttered Jack-the-Marshal-Slayer, and Jen laughed — laughed because she loved that he was so sweet, loved that they were finally going to give each other some healing after more than a week, longer than they’d gone since they first slept together almost a year before. Loved that they had both somehow managed to survive. Loved that the idea of being with him — just him, just her  — could fill her with such joy. She squeezed his hand. “Come on, silly boy.” She walked him back to where she could see that she’d parked her dad’s pickup. “Bye, Tony. Bye, Artemis.”

“Are you going to have sex now?” Artemis called back.

Jack stopped and went absolutely rigid, which only made Jen laugh more. Squeezing her boyfriend’s hand, she said, “We are going to get a little private time, yes, Missy.”

Artemis turned in Tony’s arms. “You see? They’re going to have sex!”

Tony’s only response was a blush that Jen knew would travel all of the way down to his toes.

As Jen pulled him toward the truck, both of them giggling, Jack managed to say, “I love you. You’re all I need in the world.”

Jen’s heart stopped, as only Jack could stop it. She turned to him, trying to think of something snappy or poetic or even vaguely close to what she felt in that moment, but words escaped her. She could only echo, “Love you.”

Then, after they’d kissed a bit, and her feet were back beneath her (though they felt as if they might be a few feet off the ground) and her body aflame, she whispered into his lips, “C’mon, Jack. Let’s go fuck.”

“Okay,” he answered again, without a stutter this time, and walked with her to the truck.

No. Not alone.

So? Let me know what you think!

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3 thoughts on “Sneak peek: By the Numbers prologue (paranormal/fantasy)

  1. Pingback: And the winner is… | K.D West

  2. Pingback: Preview: Fantasy Is More than Black & White | K.D West

  3. Pingback: Sneak peek! Null (By the Numbers prologue — erotic contemporary fantasy) | K.D West

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