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Carmilla’s front paws dangled from either side of a thick tree branch as she watched the action below. Some idiot had wandered into a group of Infected and led them directly to her tree. She might have been able to get back to sleep had the pesky thing been a little more goal-oriented in the way of dying. Thus far, the girl had downed two of the aggressors and was managing to hold the others at bay. The girl was small, and didn’t look like much, but she wielded her daggers with lethal precision.

The remaining five Infected herded the girl until her back was plastered to Carmilla’s tree and she was defending herself from multiple angles. As entertaining as this break in routine was, Carmilla knew what the inevitable conclusion would be. This kid had maybe thirty seconds left before being overrun and torn apart. End of story. Unfortunately, her hopes of getting back to sleep dwindled with each passing second. If there were more Infected in the area, they were bound to hear the commotion.

One Infected grabbed the girl’s arm, but she deftly dropped to her knees and sliced through its Achilles tendon. The monster roared in agony, released the girl, and fell—face first—to the ground. A quick stab to the back of its neck ended the Infected cries. The human rolled away but was still cornered against the thick trunk of Carmilla’s oak tree.

An intelligent Infected is a bit of an oxymoron, but these three seemed to recognize the girl as dangerous prey. They stopped their attempts at bull rushing her and now kept their distance without allowing her the opportunity to escape. Almost, as if they were of one mind, they each picked up rocks and sticks at their feet and threw them. Most missed their target and ricocheted off the tree, and the few that found their mark caused the girl to hiss in pain. She darted forward to attack one on her left but was driven back by another Infected who held a large branch.

Miraculously, Carmilla found herself rooting for the little moron. Which led to other, darker, more sinister thoughts. This girl was uninfected, and Carmilla hadn’t made any plans for her next meal. She’d eaten a few weeks ago, but the thought of an unscheduled feeding awakened the dormant hunter within. Of course, this revelation meant saving the idiot. Or preferably, wait until the girl saved herself and then swoop in and grab her.

That plan was quickly squashed, when, without warning, the three Infected changed tactics. One flung a stick at the girl while the other two charged her. The projectile hit but wasn’t thrown with enough accuracy or velocity to do much more than act as a distraction. Before the other two reached her, the girl in turn threw one of her knives. Her target stopped and dropped to its knees, clutching ineffectively at the blade now lodged in its throat. As impressive as the throw was, it didn’t change the balance of the fight. The last two were on her and Carmilla knew she couldn’t wait any longer. Not if she wanted that meal for herself. She snarled, every inch a hellish nightmare made of pure rage.

The two remaining Infected, a man and a woman, raised their gazes to the tree branches just as she leaped out of the deep shadows provided by a thick canopy of leaves. Carmilla landed on one of the Infected, her claws tearing through the soft tissue of the woman’s stomach. The thing started howling, vocalizing its pain in the loudest way possible. She quickly pounced on its head and felt a satisfying crunch beneath her paw. The last Infected, a man, continued to struggle with the girl. He could’ve run, but that would mean giving up food and only a rare Infected ever chose self-preservation over its ingrained fury. She was about ten feet away. Close enough. She considered her best approach while keeping in mind that she must not ingest any tainted blood. The meal the girl represented wouldn’t be worth that kind of suffering.

Carmilla needn’t have worried; the distraction of her attack proved to be enough. With her remaining dagger, the girl stabbed the final Infected in its belly and twisted the blade sharply. He stared down at with an uncanny expression filled with shock and sorrow. It was likely the closest to being human he’d been in a decade. He collapsed, his weight falling limply on the smaller body beneath him. He must’ve weighed nearly double the girl, but she pushed him off with surprising strength. The Infected’s dying breaths came in short sporadic gasps, but Carmilla’s attention was elsewhere. The girl. The girl who seemingly had forgotten or never even noticed her. It was almost insulting.

“Oh crap, I’m not dead. I can’t believe…oh god,” the girl said, breathless and gasping. Exhausted, her arms lay extended at her sides. In a rookie move, she’d released her knife after burying it in the Infected’s gut.

Crouching low, Carmilla stalked closer, her paws silent as they padded through the damp leaves and sodden earth. She didn’t have a plan. She only knew that this girl was a meal. A meal that she wasn’t quite desperate for, but one that might not be there when the thirst took hold. She waited a second too long, and the girl flipped to her feet, suddenly aware of the threat and the fact that her weapons were not in her hands. Not that they would’ve mattered. The knives wouldn’t hinder a vampire, but being stabbed was never fun.

“Crap. Okay,” the girl said, hands held forward as she backed away. “Nice panther. Good panther.”

Carmilla followed her, unhurried. She rarely played with her food, but this was the most entertaining thing that had happened in months. This girl was baby talking her and canvassing the landscape for something, a weapon or escape route. The knives weren’t an option, Carmilla had already situated herself in front of the bodies of the Infected that housed them.

“Here’s the deal, panther. I can’t let you eat me okay? I’m sure you’re hungry, so if you just follow me a little bit I can help take care of that.” She quickly glanced over her shoulder, looking for something, then said, “Right over there.”

Curious to see exactly where this was heading, Carmilla allowed the girl to lead her away. Not far, perhaps fifty feet, she was able to make out a large backpack lying next to the beginnings of an unlit fire. When they reached those supplies, Carmilla dug her claws into the ground, prepared to strike if her prey reached for a weapon.

Instead, as if this were the most normal situation in the world, the girl kneeled and picked up a half-skinned rabbit. “It was going to be my dinner, but you should have it. For saving me,” she said, and tossed the offering in front of Carmilla’s feet.

Carmilla stared down at the thing. It was puny and wouldn’t have been filling even if she hadn’t required an entirely different kind of sustenance. She lifted her head and noticed the girl wore a nervous smile and was nodding encouragement.

“Good panther. Aren’t you a sweet kitty? Eat the rabbit, not Laura. Laura is gross and stringy. The rabbit is delicious, yum.” The girl, Laura, slowly reached for a nearby walking stick and used it to push the rabbit a little closer to Carmilla.

This was ridiculous why wasn’t she feeding on this girl? Amusement coursed through her when she considered that the girl wasn’t much larger than the rabbit if she’d been offered. But she was alive and filled with blood.

Laura grimaced and asked, “Do you want me to finish skinning it? Or maybe I could get you a fresher one-oh. Hey, you’re hurt. Crap.”

That’s when Carmilla noticed the sharp sting in her foreleg. A steady throb that grew more insistent with each passing second. The offending object—that looked an awful lot like the stick that the Infected had carried—was impaled through a muscle in her leg and out the other side. She guessed it happened when she leaped from the tree onto the Infected woman. The promise of fresh blood and the distraction of the Infected had kept her from noticing the pain, though, but now that rush of adrenaline was fading.

In pure Darwin award fashion, the girl inched toward her. In some foolhardy desire to help, she’d dropped the staff and made herself completely vulnerable. Carmilla was stunned that anyone could be this stupid. Maybe she’d been injured in the fight and completely lost her senses? Either way, she kneeled in front of Carmilla, a predator, with a gentle expression filled with concern.

“Please don’t eat me. I won’t hurt you, I only want to help,” Laura said, her tone soothing. However, the trembling hand she reached out betrayed her nerves. “Easy, okay? I won’t hurt you.”

Carmilla smelled the girl’s fear, it hung in the air, heavy and palpable. Beads of sweat formed on her forehead, and the undisguised terror that coursed through the girl’s veins smelled delicious. Tempting. But, this tiny slip of a human didn’t falter in her care. She intended to administer first aid to what she thought was a wild animal. A wild animal that could maul her with ease.

Ironically, the truth was far worse. Carmilla was the monster in every child’s nightmares, the warning that fell from a parent’s lips when they spoke of the boogeyman. She’d been these things for so long she didn’t know how to be anything else. Strangely enough, those despairing thoughts faded when Laura’s hand came to rest on her shoulder. Her touch was delicate, a caress that was probably meant to relax, but had the opposite effect. The fingers running through her fur probed a distant memory, something long dead that sifted at the edge of her awareness. Another time. Another girl. 

“Right. I’m going to look at this. Just remember that you’re a sweet kitty who doesn’t like to eat humans.” Laura drew in a shaky breath and then exhaled. “You’re insane, Hollis. What are you doing? This panther is going to eat you. Oh god, please don’t eat me.”

The girl was petting her now. Petting Carmilla like she was an overgrown house cat. One hand scratched under her chin and really, there was no point in letting this charade continue, but Carmilla had to admit that the girl’s hand felt nice on her fur. Almost comforting. Laura’s hand progressively moved closer to the wound. Her fingers brushed the tender flesh around the punctured tear and she made audible clicking noises with her tongue. Like a mother who was tending the injury of a small child.

The pointed end of the stick protruded about three inches out of the top of her leg. If she changed form, Carmilla could make quick work of it. And the girl. She continued repeating this fact to herself, like a mantra. Turn into a vampire, drink from the girl. This kill would be easy, so why hadn’t she struck? The human’s blood would flow like a fine wine upon her tongue.

“Well, it’s not terrible, but it’s not great,” Laura said, and chewed on her bottom lip. “We need to pull it out. It’ll come clean, I think. But I have a feeling there’s no way you’re going to let me do that without chomping me.”

A valid concern and the first time the girl showed herself to have any common sense. Carmilla considered how to move this along. She doubted she could pull it out in this form, but also knew that transitioning back into a human wouldn’t be possible until sunset. Of course, waiting wouldn’t make the injury worse—vampire wounds healed at an accelerated rate. But, sooner was better than later and it would help to have the stick out now. Satisfied with her logic, Carmilla lifted and set her heavy paw in the girl’s lap. Then stared at Laura expectantly.

Laura frowned, her brows coming together to form a soft point. “I guess that’s permission?” She regarded Carmilla as if she was trying to put pieces of a puzzle together. “There’s something…”

Frustrated, Carmilla huffed when Laura continued to hesitate. This was stupid, she should just rip the stick out of her leg and drink from the girl. It would be a quick, nearly painless death and hunger, the ever ticking time bomb that controlled her life would be reset. Carmilla willed herself to act, but for some reason she didn’t want to hurt the girl. What was her name? Laura. She knew she could kill the girl and this whole event would hardly end be a blip in the endless sea of monotonous days that made up her existence.

Finally, Laura drew in several calming breaths, and said, “Here goes.” She gripped the crude spear from the bottom and pulled it out the way it had gone in. White-hot burning agony flooded Carmilla’s system. The entire process lasted less than a few seconds, but to Carmilla it felt like an eternity. Unfortunately, an immunity to pain wasn’t among her abilities. Being supernatural didn’t mean that she felt pain less than a mortal. In some ways, it was worse for her, because pain made her hunger flare. It called to her now, demanding that she attack her tormentor.

Laura must have perceived the danger because she rolled away, landing lightly on the balls of her feet, the discarded walking staff now in hand. Carmilla didn’t hesitate. Supernatural speed gave her a distinct advantage, and she swiftly slipped under the girl’s guard and had her on her back. There were two things that saved Laura in that moment. She reeked of Infected blood; it covered more of her than naught. And secondly, her eyes were defiant and angry. Not terrified, but furious as if she’d been betrayed.

This was absurd. Less than ten minutes ago, Carmilla had been planning on eating her and now she was concerned about causing offense. Ridiculous. Slowly, as not to scare her any more than she already had, Carmilla lifted her bulk off Laura and slunk backwards until she rested on her stomach a few feet away. She licked at her throbbing wound, which was more of an instinctual action than something that would do any good.

Meanwhile, Laura scrambled away, falling over her pack and landing roughly on the ground. Her lungs were working overtime to sort out her panic. A shaky laugh escapes and she said, “I’m alive. Again.” Her eyes watched Carmilla for any signs that another attack was coming. After about a minute, she said, “I don’t know why, but I don’t think you’re a normal panther. I’m not sure what that means exactly,” her eyebrows creased into a frown, “but it seems like you almost understand me.”

If she had been able, Carmilla would’ve laughed. But she too was confused and unsure of how to proceed.

Once again proving herself to be reckless, Laura leaned in to inspect the wound. “This is just a hunch,” she said, “but I think if you really wanted to hurt me, you would’ve. I’m guessing what happened just now was because I hurt you. I’m sorry about that, I didn’t want to. So, before we part ways, with you going off to do your panther-y things that don’t involve snacking on me, and me going off to find my mom, we’re going to try this again. And yes, I totally realize I’m insane, and I should be trying to get away,” she tentatively rested her hand on Carmilla’s paw, “but I want to make sure this isn’t going to get any worse.”

Laura grimaced as she examined the damage. “Good news is that it isn’t bleeding much. Bad news is that it looks almost…black. That doesn’t seem right. I hope that’s not infection.” She sighed, reaching blindly for her pack. She ruffled through its contents before removing a soiled t-shirt. “I know this doesn’t look clean, but I promise it is. You might not need this, but I’d feel better bandaging that up.” She ripped the cloth into several strips, then wrapped one after the other around Carmilla’s foreleg. Each time she tied a strip off, she cast a nervous glance at Carmilla, but never wavered in finishing her task.

Carmilla watched her work and acknowledged the kindness, unnecessary as it was. She realized, that, she’d already decided against eating the girl. Not yet anyway. Her interest far outweighed her hunger. Where had this human come from? This world, now a bloodthirsty wasteland that gave birth to a multitude of predators, only had room for monsters. Those monsters took many forms, but there were three in particular that turned selflessness into suicide. The Infected, whose sole purpose in life was to rage against those who weren’t burdened with their disease. Then there were humans, who endured by reverting to their baser needs. They, above all, deserved every ounce of suffering inflicted upon them. She’d wish them wiped out had they not been necessary for her own continued survival.

But, how Laura managed to avoid vampires was the question of the hour. No matter how skilled she was with her knives, she wouldn’t be able to mount much of a defense against even the weakest of vampires. There weren’t many of Carmilla’s kind left, but they weren’t so few that a lone human would evade their notice for long.

“That should do,” Laura said, as she tied off the final bandage and inspected her handiwork. “I’m just going to mosey on. I’m pretty sure I need to stop pressing my luck.” She set about collecting her belongings and hefted the heavy pack onto her shoulders. Finally, she stared over at the pile of Infected bodies, and said, “I guess I need to go get my knives…which are, yep, still in stab mode. Gross.”

Almost unconsciously, Carmilla followed her. Only when Laura whirled around did she stop moving and sat down.

“You need to stay here, okay? I’m going to go do people things, and you should go do panther things.” Laura snorted, then clarified, “Things that don’t involve eating me. Oh, hold on. I forgot about your food.”

Carmilla continued to sit while Laura walked over and retrieved the rabbit. It was still half skinned and now covered in dirt. Laura smoothly finished the skinning process by pulling the fur off the rodent with a firm tug. She then opened her canteen and poured water over the carcass, effectively cleaning it.

“It’s not the best, but you should be able to eat it now,” Laura stepped forward and held the rabbit out for Carmilla to sniff.

Like hell. She had no intention of consuming that sodden piece of roadkill. Carmilla growled in indignation and swiped it hard with her paw which sent the pitiful thing flying about twenty feet away.

For a few moments, Laura stared at her hand as if trying to figure out what happened. When her brain caught up to the present, she glared at Carmilla and said, “I can’t believe you just did that. If you didn’t want it then you could’ve just walked away. That was my dinner, you—you—you butthole.” Exasperated, she threw her hands up in the air. “Oh my god, I’m yelling at a panther. I need to go right now while I still have an ounce of sanity.” She pointed a finger at Carmilla and said, “You stay right there. No following me.”

Carmilla snorted and waited all of ten seconds after Laura walked away before going after her. This girl thought she was going to make the rules? Laughable. She made no effort to be inconspicuous, instead relishing opportunity to be annoying. Truthfully, she needed to figure out her next move. Relieving her thirst had quickly become a secondhand priority and would almost be a waste of resources. The hunger wouldn’t start dominating her thoughts for a few more weeks. That should give her enough time to solve the mystery of the girl.

Strangely enough, Laura no longer seemed worried by Carmilla’s presence. She strolled over to the pile of corpses and stared at them. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I wish it hadn’t been this way.” After retrieving and cleaning off both blades, she peered over her shoulder and noticed Carmilla sitting nearby. Without speaking, and without another look back, she stood up and walked away. For the first mile or so, Carmilla kept her distance. She attuned her senses to the surrounding area in case some other looming danger awaited them. The woods were quiet, though, and so was Laura. She moved briskly, but her footsteps were whisper soft. By the time dusk fell, Carmilla gave up any pretense of following and caught up to walk alongside her.

“I was wondering how long you planned to stay back there,” Laura said, smiling. Her eyes were alert, scanning the horizon. “If you’re going to stick around we need to come up with some ground rules. Number one. Laura Hollis—that’s me—is not dinner. Number two. You aren’t allowed to waste perfectly good food just because you think it’s beneath you.” She paused, then continued, “I’m reserving the right to add rules later. I’m too tired to think of more right now. Hey, think it’s safe to make a fire?” Laura asked, as if expecting an answer. She picked up a few fallen branches and sighed. “The wood is still too damp from that earlier rain shower. So, that’s a no on the fire. Let’s see if we can find a place to rest that’s at least a little dry.” She peered up at the sky, filled with angry clouds. “I have a feeling the rain is going to start up again.”

As they traveled along, Laura continued the one-sided conversation. Mostly about random things they passed. A rusted car, a fence pulled over by heavy weeds, a red cardinal that added a brush of color to the dreary landscape. Anything that caught her eye deserved a mention. It was surreal. Laura talked like they were friends.

Eventually, they came upon a series of small cabins. They’d been ransacked, doors ripped from their hinges and windows shattered and broken. The interiors of these buildings promised to be cesspools and the chances of them still having anything useful was nil. But Laura was clearly taxed and needed to rest. One by one they checked the cabins, and while none were suitable for long term habitation, they did find one that was mostly intact. As an added bonus, there weren’t any dead bodies or vermin to deal with.

Fifteen years of accumulated grime covered every surface of the one room cabin. The building smelled a little of mold and urine, but it met Laura’s one requirement. It was dry. In one corner, an unwanted box spring lay on the floor. It was soiled and grass looked to be growing out of one corner. Still, Laura sighed and said, “I’ve slept in worse places. Okay let’s hole up here tonight and wait out the rain.”

Carmilla looked around the room then shuffled over to the bed and stretched out on it. She yawned then stared at Laura, daring her to object. Who’s making the rules now?

“Of course, you’d take the only bed,” Laura said with a groan. She set her pack down and leaned against it. “Whatever. That’s fine, I’m too tired to care.”

Outside, rain began to fall, first in steady drops then heavy sheets. The roof wasn’t doing its job very well, and slow drips fell from cracks in the ceiling. When one hit Carmilla directly in the head Laura laughed and said, “That’s what you deserve for being a jerk.”

Carmilla growled and shifted her weight so the water stopped hitting her. She wasn’t irritated with Laura’s laughter, she was fascinated by it. Laughter didn’t belong in this world. People didn’t laugh anymore, not unless it was flavored with hatred and maliciousness. But Laura sounded almost happy, smiling in amusement and in the process made herself an even greater conundrum.

“Hey,” Laura said, smile still in place. Her fingers reached out and rubbed at Carmilla’s ear. “I’m not sure why you tagged along, but I’m glad you’re here. Although, my dad would freak out if he knew I was hanging out with a panther.” This was said in a hushed conspiratorial tone. “So, are you some enhanced mutant panther from a former government lab? I mean, you seem relatively tame, and you are massive. That would make sense.”

Tame? Whatever. Sighing, Carmilla rested her head on her paws. If the chatter kept up, this would be a long night. She closed her eyes and began to drift off when she heard a scurrying noise followed by Laura lifting her tail up. Carmilla lunged and swiped at her but missed.

“Calm down,” Laura said. “I only wanted to see if you’re a girl or a boy panther. I think if you’re going to stick around, you’re going to need a name, right? Something better than Panther.”

This time, Carmilla didn’t hold back. She hissed and showed her teeth.

Laura wasn’t bothered, or bothersome enough, intimidated. She leaned against her backpack once more. Her voice was soft, wistful. “After things went bad I lived in this compound with my parents that managed to keep things pretty normal for a while. It didn’t last, nothing ever does. But they tried to make things okay for us kids. I remember this man still had electricity going and we got to watch movies. Well, there was this one called The Jungle Book and in it there was a panther, like you. He was a boy, but I don’t think it really matters. That panther was special, and even though you can’t talk, you remind me of him.” She smiled, looking every bit like a beacon of light in the long dark. “Anyways, let’s call you Bagheera.”