Underwater Panther, or Velith
The water was dark here. The panther pawed at the deepest parts of Lake Junaluska with her big, webbed feet. Her belly growled against the emptiness. Meanwhile she ached with the need to feed her babies.
She snatched a passing bass, sunk her long teeth into the flesh and sucked. The fish flopped in her mouth, flicking against her whiskers. It held hardly any blood. Not enough to fill her and not enough to produce milk for her kittens. She let go of the now still fish carcass and swam away from it, further toward the bank and closer to something to eat.
The water eased over her black fur while her bright neon green eyes shone against the darkness. Her muscles strained against the physical effort. It had been too long since she’d ventured from the den, too focused on nursing her kittens to bother with feeding herself.
The bottom of the lake climbed, pushing the underwater panther closer to the surface. Light filtered through still waters, turning the world around her dark green and blue. She cast a nervous glance around, all too aware of her lacking strength.
When the panther neared the water’s surface, she paused and looked through the liquid ceiling. When she saw nothing alarming she eased her feline face into the air. Her whiskers pricked at the touch of a light breeze. She sniffed, hoping to catch the scent of prey close by.
The pier was close and a group of humans were laughing and talking. Her stomach growled. It would be so easy. She watched one of the humans dawdling near the lake’s edge. She could snatch the human and drag it under water before the others noticed it was gone. She paddled toward the bank, her stomach quivering. But, then a larger human shouted and the group, including the one all by itself, jogged away.
She slipped under the water’s surface, frustration leaking into her veins. Her six legs moved her swiftly through the lake, her long tail trailing behind her. She snatched at fish and drained them, but what she really craved was a mammal. Something rich with life-giving blood. The human would have done nicely.
It was best the human had been called away, though. She was forbidden their blood by the Dragon Bitten. Maybe she could have covered her tracks, but it was a risk she couldn’t take with her babies.
She snuffed out the stream of air still trapped in her lungs, sending a rising trail of bubbles to the surface. Once the air was out, she inhaled the water, preparing herself for the dive. The portal was deep in the lake, but it would take her to a place not so populated – and tempting. The bottom of the lake was drowned in darkness. So dark that even her keen eyes struggled with the details, casting the world in vague, lumpish shapes. Her paws brushed the long weeds rooted to the floor of the lake. She searched around for the tell-tale gap in the vegetation without finding it.
The barest hush of warmth against her right set of whiskers sent a wave of panic down her spine. She lunged away as the beast’s head lurched from the cover of sediment. Jaws snapped at the same space the Velith had just occupied. The very tip of the giant turtle’s mouth scraped against her ribs. Water bathed the scrape and burned.
The Velith moved away from the giant turtle’s hunting space. The turtle retracted its head but kept its mouth gaping open. It was so large it was cavernous. Large enough the panther could be snapped in half with little effort. And not even the copper bobbing at the end of her tail could heal her from that. Clearly, she’d wandered too far south in the lake.
She left the turtle’s space and hunted again for the portal, this time finding it with ease. She jetted through the portal, the darkness falling in on her. She pictured the place she wanted to go and before she could draw another liquidy inhale, she was slurped away with an uneasy squeezing sensation. The water turned lighter and churned around her.
She pawed at the current, giant webbed feet fighting the pounding of the river. By the time she bobbed to the surface, she heaved at air, sputtering against the transition from gills to lungs. She found a boulder defying the current and rested in the clouded sunshine, squinting against the gray light of early spring.
She raised her nose to the breeze to catch a sample of what was on the menu today. The world was scented with a thousand things: birds, trees, soil, dew, mist, water, bugs… and something that made her stomach churn.
Her belly clenched and burned. The smell drove her toward the bank. Tired, starving, still jittery from the encounter with the giant turtle, she stumbled ashore. Leaves crackled under her feet. Before she could even poise herself for a strike, the deer twitched its ears, wiggled its black nose and darted from the bank.
The Velith lunged after her. She leapt over logs, dodged around trees, scrambled through bushes. The air cooled her wet hide. The deer bounded through the forest in front of her. It would be all she needed for days. If she could just catch the animal, she could feed her babies again and not have to venture from her cave for a while. If she could just catch it.
Her muscles screamed against the exertion. The deer was staying ahead by only a length of its own body. Almost! She could taste the blood already. The aching need to feed pushed her forward in a jolt of speed. The Velith side-stepped a boulder, but found a dip in the earth. Two of her six legs landed in the hole, twisting with a dull crunch. The panther yowled in pain as she stumbled and fell. She tried to right herself but the deer was long gone. She could hear its retreating hooves through the forest. Her meal had run away.
She lay still, panting to catch her breath. Her two injured feet throbbed and ached. She tested them by pushing them into the ground and growled against the sharp pain. Once her hearts calmed, she flicked her tail and purred. The energy from the copper coalesced and spread from her tail and through her body. It snaked along her spine and cascaded down her legs, finally falling to the injury. Energy wrapped around her feet binding them tightly. She pushed a purr through the pain and was rewarded with a high pitch ache and then a percussive relief.
Once she recovered, she smelled around for anything else she could eat. She wandered close to the bank, this time more carefully, and made quick work of a couple of hares. She twitched her ears after she’d finished the second hare. A warm, inviting tug wrapped around her. She fought the sensation, instantly not trusting it with a wrench deep in her mostly-empty gut, and the tug eased. She shook her head and sneezed, shaking herself free last lingering fingers digging into her intention.
Wanting a larger meal, she waded out in the river and let it sweep her downstream. When the river slowed, she took a moment to survey her surroundings, sniffing for prey. The inviting warmth pulled on her again. She growled at it, but found her feet moving her into shallow water and the river’s edge.
And that’s when her nose caught something indescribably exquisite. No longer fighting the call, she paddled toward the bank, slowed at the water’s edge and stepped with great care onto the beach. The muzzy pull folded over, muffling the world. But, the smell was really what drove her on. She needed food. She tongued back the pooling saliva building in her mouth. She hadn’t eaten in weeks and here her favorite meal had presented itself. The draw of the blood and magic was irresistible.
She could smell her soon-to-be quarry so close and yet closer still was the scent of three Dragon Bitten and canine. But, not even the canine could distract her from the odor wafting over the scent of wintergreen and freshly budding trees. She was all hunger and weak need. She let it fuel her through the spell of calling while tempering it for the hunt.
She wasn’t allowed to eat humans. At least with one exception. And the delicious smell driving her forward was no ordinary human.