It was a dark and silent night. The stars twinkled bright, with no moon in the sky to outshine them. The cool night breeze gently meandered through the trees of the dense forest, rustling the autumn leaves that had started to turn yellow. Mare sat on the thick branches of the tree, for a brief stop to catch her breath. She loved to swim through the forest, like wind. But she normally would not come this far, so close to the compound of the Institute, in the City. She could almost see the blurry outlines of the buildings in the Compound, through the dense foliage of the tree.
That was the direction that the human walked towards, the other day, when she followed the youth silently, after she caught a glimpse of him in the deep forest. She watched him from the shadows as the youth carefully made his way out of the forest and walked straight to the Compound gates. She did not know why she felt the desire to follow him. Maybe it was his long carefree strides, maybe it was the haunting look in his eyes. She was always cautious of flying too close to the City. Her kind had told her not to trust City folks, that they were hunting for her kind. But that only made her more curious of the strange beings that dwelled in the City.
Few hours passed. Mare was still perched on the branch, contemplating a quiet pass close to the forest border, checking if she could steal a better glimpse of the City. All of a sudden, she heard light measured footsteps, softly crunching the dried autumn leaves laying on the ground. She grew completely still. She soundlessly parted two thin branches of the tree with her dark wispy limbs to peep down at the lonely dirt road that ran through the forest. It was the same youth from before, that she had been following. The youth was moving carefully, his head turning this way and that, with every little snap of a twig. He was dressed in a tight athletic suit, a heavy belt around his waist. The youth carried a small bag, wound around his shoulder. In his right hand was a device that he frequently brought up to his eyes; in his left gloved hand was a long and heavy contraption. He was slightly crouching as he cautiously made his way into the forest.
Mare let him gain a good distance before she silently descended from the tree and started to follow the youth. Her wispy ethereal mass became one with the air. If she moved silently, the youth would not notice. After trailing the youth for an hour or so, they arrived at a clearing in the middle of the forest. The youth walked towards a stone that was not too high. He plopped himself on it and removed his bag from his shoulders. He dug in deep and brought out what looked like few small bags. Few moments later, a crunching sound broke the stillness of the forest. Mare knew it was something called food, that humans consumed. They would create food from plants and animals, both. Mare could only consume souls, but she mostly stuck to animal souls. And she never consumed the entire soul at a time. That would render them lifeless. She only took what she needed to sustain herself. The darker the soul was, the quicker it would satiate her.
A soothing whistling sound started to drift in from the center of the clearing. First, Mare thought it was the wind. But the sound had a rhythm and a pitch that followed a pattern. She realized the crunching noise had stopped. It must be the youth, then. She liked what she heard. Her folks only made growls and grunts. That was how they communicated. And gestures. But she never told them she had other voices too. Soothing ones. She again heard the faint sing song sound from the youth. This time she made a soft noise that fell in sync with the whistle, as if the wind. The youth did not stop. He continued. She found it amusing and did not stop either. She thought of it as a fun little game.
Every time a whistle rose, Mare would emit a soft ringing melody. Soon, the sound fell in unison, complimenting each other. And with each passing verse, Mare felt less fear and more bold. She slowly started to drift towards where the youth was sitting, every step up in the tempo drew her a little closer. Soon, she reached almost at arm’s length from the youth, whose back was turned to her, still sitting on the rock. By now, they had reached a crescendo in their melody. And then, just before it ended, the youth turned. He was pointing his contraption at Mare. His entire countenance had changed. His peaceful, unassuming face had suddenly scrunched up into fury.
“Make one move, you lecherous little scoundrel, and this poisoned arrow will pierce you.” The boy spoke bitterly, chewing every word.
Mare did not know what to say and could not, even if she knew. She frantically looked here and there, to get some sense of how she got caught in this situation. Indeed, it was her own fault. But even in her nightmares, she could not imagine being caught by a human. She knew humans hunted mares. And now, she had managed to become a prey to one of those humans. She had heard horror stories of what they did to her kind in the institute. Tears welled up in her eyes. An agonizing scream was forming in the pit of her mass. But she was warned not to make even one move. If she let out her cry, her folks will come swarming in a matter of seconds, but the poisoned bolt will make her disappear by then, make her vanish into nothing.
Now tears were rolling unbidden from her deep dark eyes, but they were nothing but drops of black smoke. Suddenly, her body started to shiver, and no matter how much she tried, she could not stop. And then she let out a deep haunting scream, that echoed through the entire forest. Not a moment later, an arrow tore through the air and came flying in straight at Mare. It missed her by a whisker. She let out another screeching cry, with all the might that she had. This time two more arrows came flying in at her. She somehow dodged them, drifting swiftly back into the thick dense jungle.
The youth chased her with all his athletic skills. Soon, distant cries could be heard, quickly approaching them. The dark night grew even darker as shadows of black masses started to fill the sky, clouding the twinkling stars. The boy kept chasing Mare, sending arrow after arrow aimed at her. Suddenly Mare felt an intense pain starting from her lower part and shooting through her entire mass. She knew she had at last been defeated by one of those ghastly arrows as she began to lose her speed. By then, flimsy dark shadows of her folks started to fill the area and began to trail after the youth. Mare was sinking lower and lower in her flight, until she came crashing to the ground.
The world was drifting away as she heard quick footsteps approaching her. It was the youth that she decided to chase after, unheeding of the warnings of her folks. Now, he was chasing after her, looking to collect her slowly melting mass, lying helpless on the dirt road. Not a second later, a Marish being just like Mare whooshed over the area. The youth pulled out an arrow and aimed it at the new shadow with his crossbow, before firing it. But the shadow was too swift. In no time, half a dozen marish beings started swarming in the area, flying over the youth and Mare, who was slowly losing herself, the poison taking hold of her. She heard their screeches and groans but could say nothing. The boy shot arrow after arrow, but they were too many and too fast. Suddenly, a shadow swam through the youth, stirring his soul. And then another, and another. And each time they attacked the youth’s body, they took away a piece of his soul. Soon the boy was grasping his last arrow.
“I do not get it,” the agent said, sounding a little frustrated.
“What do you not get?” Jayr responded, though he could already guess what the man’s answer would be.
“I thought this was some kind of, you know, demon love story or something, like a demon nightmare. You know, one of those nasty little things that come at night and suck your soul or something.” The agent gave Jayr a meaningful look, voice already coarse with lewdness.
“Um, no. I do not write that type of literature. This is a gritty urban fantasy. I think you have been mistaken.”
“Well, I do not know. Do this Mare or whatever…does she end up with this guy at least?”
“Um, I don’t that is possible. Mare is only a mass. And she gets gravely injured during that encounter, as you can see.”
“Um, yes, I understand. But may be, you know, she goes to the facility, gets some medicine or something, feels better, and then, who knows, may be they can, you know, they can get together or something.”
“No, that does not happen.” Jayr stated resolutely. “And again, Mare is just a mass, a nightmare.”
“Yeah, I don’t know about that. I don’t know how this is going to fly with the publishers, you know. It is hard nowadays to sell a book, with all your high-level SJW stuff.”
“Umm, okay. I don’t know what part of that struck you as fighting for social justice, not that there is anything wrong with it.”
“No, no. Of course not. There is nothing wrong with it. I am just saying that stuff doesn’t sell books.”
Jayr was positively irate by now. He did not even bother correcting the agent. “Okay.”
“Yeah, I think there may be other publishers who will be right fit for you.” Jayr knew what that meant.
“I understand.” Not wanting to sit there one second longer, Jayr jumped to his feet. “Thank you for your time.”
After a brief perfunctory handshake, Jayr exited the small room that was jam-packed with tall piles of books and papers, and quickly made his way down the stairs. As soon as he reached the landing, he gave a disappointed sigh. He took out his smartphone from his pocket, and scrolled through the texts, until he found the one text he was looking for. He was staring at a blue underlined hyperlink in his text, little hesitant to click it. But, at last, Jayr made up his mind, and pressed the link with his thumb. The next screen on his phone showed in bright decorative gold and silver letters: “Royal Road.”