A/N: This piece has been edited and updated as of 1/31/2016. I have fixed some spelling/grammatical errors that I had failed to change before, and a few other slight changes have been made to improve the story. I hope you enjoy this piece. It's one of my favorites.
The night had fallen on that long, hot, miserable day. The darkness did little to silence the stifling heat. Absent stars failed to pin back the black blanket of the night sky. Swelteringly suffocating, the heat drove madness into all it swallowed. The temperature was fitting, however, due to the burning desire for revenge found in a bloodthirsty Dakota Markson.
~Two Years Prior~
The suitcases hit the floor with a soft thud. "This is beautiful!" Elana smiled to her husband, awed by the sense of isolation and beauty given to her by the view from the little house.
Her husband slipped his arms around her waist and kissed her neck delicately. "Not as beautiful as you." His lips moved up to her cheek, then met her lips. He kissed her deeply, a kiss filled with love and passion. "You are ten times lovelier than this."
"Dakota," Elana murmured, gently pushing him away from her, "How can just one person be more beautiful than an entire African savannah?"
The house the couple had chosen for their trip was located three miles outside of the local village, far enough for solitude, close enough for safety. Only a short drive using the rental car could change that. It was isolated in a beautifully vast savannah valley. The open grasslands stretched their boundaries in countless directions. The long grasses bent and twisted in the wind, as if celebrating the arrival of Elana and Dakota in their own special way. The sight of twenty zebra galloping across the grasses lifted Elana's spirit even higher. She took a deep breath, letting the pure air restore her lungs. The sky here was impossibly open, more so even than the couple's home in Colorado. They could hear the song of the exotic birds resting in the trees that sparsely grew across the sea of grass before them. A monkey leapt off of the grass and into one of those trees, screeching wildly and causing the birds to become airborne with a nervous flutter. He seemed to smile triumphantly at his conquest.
The wind seemed to paint pictures in the long grasses below the window of the two story cottage. At the time, the grasses seemed beautiful, like a sea of tropical fish in the Caribbean. Later, it would become a chilling image, comparable to a frenzy of sharks feeding off of a bloody carcass.
Elana turned, setting eyes on the handsome man before her. "Thank you so much."
He took her hand, opening the sliding glass door that lead to the porch. He led her out into the warm summer evening. The sunset reflected in her eyes as she looked out into the view that had captivated her since she had arrived. "I love it."
This location had been his gift to her. She had always wanted to go to Africa. Dakota found it only fitting that they should share their adventure in the place of her dreams.
She looked up at him, lovingly placing her hand along the side of his face. "I can't believe you did this for me."
"I couldn't stand to lose you." he whispered, pulling her close for another kiss. His hands were entwined in her hair as he lovingly attempted to kiss her lips.
Elana pulled away. She lowered her eyes, filled with remorse, to the ground. "I know, but then why did you do that to me?"
Dakota sighed. He had hoped she would not bring up his mistake. "I've apologized countless times. . . What do I have to do to get you to trust me again?"
"Not kissing redheads would be a start." Elana said firmly. "Or other women of any hair color, for that matter."
Dakota opened his mouth to reply. "I was drunk. . . You and I had just had that huge fight. I had spent the night in the bar. . . she drove me home so I wouldn't kill myself or someone else. She kissed me. If I wasn't wasted, I never would have kissed her back!"
"You sure looked like you were enjoying it." Elana muttered, walking back inside and sitting on the large couch in the living room. "Her on top of you in the front seat like that. It's a miracle your clothes were still on, the way you two were going at it!"
"Elana . . ."
"I almost left you because of it . . . We can't just pretend it didn't happen, Dakota."
"I'm not trying to pretend."
"I forgave you, honestly, I did, but I haven't healed yet . . . There is nothing as awful as walking around the corner of your house, looking out the window, and seeing your husband kissing another woman. And, it wasn't just any kiss, it was a lengthy, enjoyable, heated one." she spoke softly, her words laced with a bitter heartbreak, each snapping with bitterness.
"It wasn't like the way I just kissed you." Dakota insisted.
"It may as well have been!" Elana said sharply.
Dakota sat down next to his wife. She responded by shifting several inches away from him. "Elana, please, don't forget why we came here."
"To work through this and fall in love again." Elana responded methodically.
"Yes." He placed his hand on top of hers. She promptly took it back.
The couple sat in an uncomfortable silence until Elana finally decided to speak. "I want to love you again. . . But I'm just so afraid you'll hurt me."
"I promise, I will never, ever do that. No other woman will ever come between us. I've even sworn off alcohol. Well, heavy drinking. I'm still going to have a beer once in a while." He caught Elana's glare.
"The point is," he added, clearing his throat, "I love you, and I'm desperate to fix things between us. I hate that I've hurt you. It's killing me inside. I want us to be the happy couple we were two years ago when we got married. Please, just try to look past my mistake and see who I am and what I am saying. Elana," he took her hands and refused to relinquish them, even when she tried to take them back. "You are my wife. ''Til death do us part' does not mean anything less than the fact that I will love you until I die. Yes, I made a mistake. But please, see it as that. A mistake. Nothing more."
Elana carefully pondered the words she had just heard. After a brief silence, she finally replied, "Maybe. I will eventually, but like I said, I'm still healing now."
"That's all I ask." Dakota took Elana's hand once more. This time, she let him entwine his fingers with hers.
The heat arrived with the morning in Africa, or so it seemed. But, the sun brought more life into the breathtaking view. Antelope peacefully grazed just outside, comfortable, yet wary.
Dakota woke earlier than his wife and took advantage of the moment to shower quickly before she could, preventing her from using all of the limited hot water before he could receive his share. He quickly realized the hot water wasn't something he wanted to take advantage of, seeing as it was already 80 degrees and only 9:30 in the morning. He rinsed himself in cold water, which both refreshed and fully awakened him.
Elana knocked three times on the bathroom door. "You gonna be much longer?"
He gave her the answer to her question when he turned off the shower. "I'll be out in a minute, hun."
Elana felt the heat as much as Dakota did, but had still prepared two cups of coffee, which Dakota happily stumbled upon after his exit from the bathroom. Hers was half full, but his was still steaming. The scent was delightful.
Elana emerged from the bathroom twenty minutes later, dressed in a strappy tank top and less than medium length shorts, her hair still dripping. "This place is great, but I wish it had AC."
"Oh, but it does." Dakota left the remnants of his coffee to linger on the table as he walked over to a small white box on the wall. After pressing a few buttons, the couple could hear the electric hum of the air conditioner.
"Why didn't we use that sooner?" Elana half groaned. "This place is really high tec, considering the village is nowhere near this up to date."
Dakota fiddled with the air conditioning unit a bit more, ignoring Elana's question. "The village is nowhere near this up-to-date." Dakota agreed, thinking of the village they had passed on the way. The villager there lived in huts and had no plumbing. . . It was as close to the stereotypical African village as one could imagine. "The owners are pretty wealthy people. I don't think they're from around here."
The air in the little house had already become more bearable. Elana was grateful the air conditioning was doing such a good job. She wasn't a woman who hated the heat. She just disliked the unclean feeling she got when she felt sweaty.
Dakota sat back down at the kitchen table, wrapping his hands around his coffee mug and gulping down the last few drops. He glanced at his wife, then at his wife's half-full coffee cup resting on the table across from him.
"Would you like the rest of mine?" she asked, suppressing a small laugh. "It's cold."
"It's yours." She pushed the cup toward him.
He gratefully took it, finishing the contents with one quick swig. "I'd call that more lukewarm than cold." Dakota chuckled.
Elana sighed. "Look, Dakota, I've been thinking."
"About?" He placed her mug next to his own.
"Us. I really, really don't want to see this marriage break apart."
"I know. That's why we're here."
"I want to love you again. Without fear. I prayed about it all last night when I couldn't sleep, and I am ready to give you a second chance." Elana relented, smiling at the silly joyful grin growing on her husband's face. "I'm not one hundred percent healed yet, but I'm not willing to give you up either."
To Dakota, the news felt like cold water to a thirsty man. Even though things were not yet perfect between them, the journey to making things right had begun. It was definitely a step in the right direction, to say the least. He walked over to his wife, placing his hands on her shoulders. He bent down and softly kissed her cheek. "Thank you."
Dakota pulled her from her chair and held her in a long embrace, the kind lovers have when they are reunited after a long, lonely time without each other.
She somehow managed to smile broadly, even with her face pressed into his shoulder. She could see this working out, she could see them once again being happy together.
He led her by the hand to the outdoor couch on the porch, cradling her small frame in his muscular one as they kissed.
Elana rested her head on Dakota's shoulder. "I think I just fell for the beauty of this place . . . Heh." she laughed to herself.
He tightened his hold around her shoulders. "Whatever it takes for you to give me that second chance."
She looked up at him, and he kissed her lips softly.
"Wouldn't it be nice to be able to spend the rest of our lives here?" Dakota asked his wife.
"It would be a dream come true." she replied. "I'd love to spend my final days here."
"Let's do it," Dakota decided. "When we go home, lets save as much as possible, so that one day, we can buy this house and grow old together in it."
Elana shook her head, causing Dakota to look at her with questions in his eyes. "Not this house," she said. "There's no phone line."
"So we put one in." Dakota shifted to become more comfortable.
"We could, but then where would we vacation? Let's buy a house near here, but still come here. . . Maybe every year on our anniversary?"
"That's our plan then." Dakota agreed.
From the secrecy of the jade grasses, now emptied of antelope, a pair of wild yellow eyes stalked the couple. The deranged beast had found his target. He was an experience killer, and planned to return when the light that lit the night had risen. This wasn't his first time, and he knew it wouldn't be his last. He was a well-taught monster, one whose victims never saw him until it was too late. He knew how to remain well hidden in the savannah grasses. He slunk away, unnoticed by the couple, ready to sleep away the day until the appropriate time came.
After lunch, the couple chose to explore the village, buying trinkets and little decorations from the locals for their Colorado home.
"Look!" Elana said, holding up a piece of colored rope with matching beads and a sharp object hanging from it. "Excuse me, what is this?"
"It is a necklace made from the claw of a leopard." the man running the booth replied, his accent decorating his speech. "Not very much, only a few dollars."
"You didn't kill the leopard to take his claw, did you?" She asked.
"No, lady. He was already dead, he was."
"Then I'll take it. I've always loved leopards." She fished the money out of her bag and handed it to the man. "Thank you very much."
"No, thank you, lady." he smiled at her kindly. "Let me warn you, be on the lookout for leopards and even lions."
"Leopards, lions, tigers, and bears, oh my?" Dakota smirked.
The man frowned. "The threat is very real. The drought, it killed off much of their prey. The big cats are fiercer this year. One has already taken children and full grown men from the next village over. He is a man eater. There is a rumor that he is an animal that was wounded, but never killed. He would have to be hurt enough that his hunting skills are impaired and he is resorted to hunting easy prey like us. It is not as rare as you'd like to think." he added, noticing the disbelieving look on Dakota's face.
"Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that we should just go pet random animals. But, honestly, do they really just go into towns and snatch people?" Dakota inquired.
"Towns, streets, huts, houses . . . You name it." the old man answered. "Just be warned."
"Thank you." Elana said, poking Dakota in the side. "We'll be careful. You be careful too, sir."
"I will, lady." The old man smiled kindly at the couple as they made their way across the market.
"Funny old man." Dakota snorted once they were out of earshot.
"He lives here. I think he'd know whether or not the threat is a real one." Elana retorted.
Dakota stole the necklace from her hand, and before she could protest his action, slipped it over her head. "I love the way this looks on you."
She played with the claw, rolling it between her fingers. "Makes me look more like Tarzan's wife than beautiful."
"Now, Jane was a very pretty woman." Dakota joked in response. "Though, no one can match you."
Elana laughed, but then grew serious. "Should we be on the lookout for a rouge animal?"
"I can protect us from anything that comes in that house, whether it be lion, leopard, or Death itself in his long, black cloak." Dakota said with a proud confidence.
"I'm sure." Elana said, half sarcastically. If he had said that before the redheaded woman incident, she would have believed him without a doubt. Now, his cockiness slightly irritated her. "We should buy a gun, just in case."
"Where are we going to find one here? The only people who have weapons like that aren't selling them. Besides, the owners would have warned us if they thought their guests were at risk of getting attacked. It would make them look bad if we died on a vacation at their house. It'd definitely make it quite hard to rent the place out, I'll tell you that." Dakota said to ease his wife.
"I'll take your word for it." Elana said. "But if one finds us, you're going to have to scare him off."
"Famous last words." Elana quipped.
It was nearly sunset before Elana and Dakota returned to the cabin. Together, they made a simple dinner, taking it outside to enjoy on the porch.
"Goodness, I love this view." Elana said to her husband.
He looked at her with a sweet smile. "You say that every time we're out here."
She laughed a bit to herself. "That's because it's so true."
He nodded in agreement.
Neither of them saw the dark shape slipping through the waist-high grasses.
"Elana . . ."
"I'm so happy about this second chance. . . Losing you would have killed me. I can hardly live with myself as it is knowing that I've-" His words were silenced as Elana spontaneously leaned up, pressing her lips against his in a sweetly sudden kiss. "What was that for?"
"Just for one night," Elana answered, "Let's pretend the redhead never happened."
He laced his fingers through her hair. "Just tonight?"
"We'll see." she considered, kissing him before he could kiss her.
Forgetting the pain felt so good.
The moon was high in the sky when Elana awoke. Dakota had fallen asleep next to her, but she was too content to fall back into slumber. She pushed the sheets off of her, stepping in the path carved by the moonlight. She picked up a book from the nightstand on her way out of the bedroom. Her feet slid across the smooth floor. She silently slid the glass door open, careful not to wake her husband. Lightly stepping out onto the porch, her eyes swept across the night-lit grasses. Elana gazed out into the darkness. The night expanded the vastness of the land, hiding everything, giving a sense of limitless space.
The night also disguised the beast, crouching under the cover of both the night and the long grasses. He rose ever so slightly, watching Elana with demonic eyes, waiting for his opportunity, waiting for a chance to creep up on his prey from an angle she wouldn't expect.
Elana lowered herself into a white lounge chair on the corner of the porch, opening the book to the last page she had read. The night was almost cold, compared to the heat of the day. Elana jumped as she felt the tight embrace of Dakota's arms, the book clattering to the floor. "Dakota! I'm sorry, I didn't mean to wake you."
"Why are you out here all alone?" He playfully added, "A lion might get you."
"Shut up." She brushed his arms from her body.
He sat beside her in the second lounge chair. "Don't let what he said get to you."
"I'm not . . . It's just a threat, that's all. A threat we should pay attention to."
He fell silent. If it mattered to her this much, he would listen. He was sure her reading selection wouldn't help matters. Jaws did not often help one to relax.
"We should probably head back to bed." Dakota said after a minute. He stretched, taking her hand and intending to lead her back to the bedroom.
However, he paused when the two of them were just under the doorframe. He glanced at his wife, so beautiful in the moonlight, her skin almost glowing, her black hair gently moving in the wind, her pink lips formed into a smile, feeling the need to wrap her tightly in his arms. He pulled her close without warning, holding her as one would hold a rare treasure. He kissed those soft, pink lips, feeling the warmth of her smile against his, lingering there for more than a minute. He released his loving hold on her, leading her by the hand he still gripped until they reached the bed.
"Oh!" she exclaimed, startling him. "I forgot my book."
"Get it in the morning." Dakota suggested.
She looked at him as if he had suddenly sprouted another arm. "You know I can't sleep unless I know where everything is."
"You do know where. . ." his voice trailed off as his wife darted between the glass door and the wall to retrieve her book.
She fumbled with it twice before she turned and froze, eyes locked on something Dakota could not see. She tried to scream, but the sound came out as more of a strangled gasp.
Dakota flew from the bed onto the porch. "What is it?" he asked. "One of those bird–eating spiders?" He looked up in time to see two yellow circles reflecting back at him, blazing with the light of the moon. Unblinking, they stared at him and Elana with a murderous tinge from the roof above.
The silver light revealed the face of an animal that may as well have been the devil himself. His body was tight, muscled, with yellow fur that looked like the black spots had been clawed into it, not birthed into it. His jaw hung slightly open, revealing a row of extremely large, glistening fangs carved to taste human flesh. He eyes them with a mocking glare, the way a cat eyes his mouse or a spider eyes his next victim.
Dakota acted as a barrier between Elana and the leopard, but he knew his body would prove useless against the brute's strength. He quickly calculated their chances of getting inside before the creature could pounce on them. Nothing short of a miracle could solve that dilemma. Headstrong, he dove towards the entryway, pulling Elana along with him.
The leopard leapt into the air, teeth bared, shining in the moonlight. His long frame seemed endless. He fell towards the fleeing lovers as if in slow motion. Dakota had barely yanked Elana through the door before the beast landed on the porch.
He rammed against the glass. Dakota realized for the first time just how flimsy that door really was. He frantically glanced in every direction, desperate to find anything that could double as a weapon.
Elana's eyes were swollen with horrific terror. She couldn't move, couldn't get away. She could only stare at the leopard as it slowly weakened the glass.
His satanic eyes hungered after her. He gave one more lurch against the door, shattering it. He stepped over the broken pieces of glass as if they weren't there.
Dakota stopped searching for a weapon the instant he heard the shards clatter on the hardwood floor. It was as if a scene from a horror movie was unfolding before his eyes.
The leopard stalked towards Elana slowly, as if he was enjoying the torment he was causing her.
She couldn't even breathe. "D- D- D- Dakota . . ." the choked sound was incoherent. The leopard leered at her, with a smile that reminded her of the a disturbed serial killer she had seen on the news.
Dakota grabbed a heavy, cast-iron frying pan from the counter. His hands almost seemed to meld to it. He raised it over his head, clubbing the leopard's skull, creating a bloody gash. The monster ignored the blood streaking into his eye, focusing only on his prime target.
Tremors of terror swirled inside Elana. Her mind would not work, her limbs would not respond. She was certain she was staring at the object of her demise.
Dakota edged toward the monster, frying pan poised for another blow.
The leopard turned on him. He snarled as he stepped closer and closer. His jaw was wide open, exposing his imposing fangs.
Dakota stepped back a few paces. His fingers wrapped around the handle of the pan, but he knew it would not prove too useful against a man-eater. He tried to will it into transforming into a gun. How he wished he had one.
The leopard teased Dakota as he ceased walking and stared, his lips curled in a smirk of his own. Then, in a sliver of a moment, he threw himself toward the man.
The weight floored him. The frying pan flew across the room. He crossed his arms over his face, but still felt the fangs dive into his skin. Hot blood gushed from the bites straight into Dakota's eyes.
"Elana- GET OUT!" He screamed, hoping his death would rescue her. He found it odd he felt no pain- his body was in shock. The pain would hit later, should he survive. He heard his bones begin to crunch under the pressure of the jaws that caged him. The leopard had its teeth sunk into Dakota's shoulder. Later came early. Pain slammed into him, taking over his every sense.
Elana's body finally responded. She bolted out of the door, only to return with the frying pan that had seemingly vanished. She delivered an impressive blow to the back of the beast, who glared at her with a growl. Realization of what she had done struck her suddenly, but she didn't care. She wanted to save her husband.
The leopard decided to ignore her again as he licked the gushing blood off of Dakota's wounds and face. Dakota attempted to punch the beast's nose, something he immediately considered a stupid idea. The leopard opened his jaws as soon as Dakota raised his bloody fist. The momentum was too strong. His fist plunged down the throat of the leopard, whose teeth closed over it as soon as it had entered. He bit down, hitting the bone. More blood spurted from Dakota. He clenched his teeth in agony, feeling the ferocious fangs separate skin and muscle from bone as he tried to wrench his hands from the jaws of the creature in an effort to save his hand. "Augh!"
Elana slammed into him with another powerful attack. He whirled around, placing his right hind leg on Dakota's chest, shattering two ribs and puncturing Dakota's abdomen with the claws attached to that foot.
Bored of Dakota, the leopard saw he had a new prize. His original prize. He wanted the woman. His intentions focused on her as he readied himself to pounce.
She panicked. Swinging the frying pan with all of her might, Elana undershot, missing the beast by mere inches.
It came closer, revealing Dakota's crumpled body, lying in a pool of blood and writhing in pain. His arm hung at an odd angle. The break was a bad one. Blood ran in burgundy waterfalls off of his body. The smell alone made Elana nearly faint.
The leopard wasted no time. He did not opt to toy with his prey. He wanted her throat safely locked in his fangs before she could cause any more trouble. He leapt onto Elana. Her blood curdling scream was silenced as soon as the leopard fell upon her, severing her jugular vein with those horrific fangs.
Dakota's own pain was erased from his mind. He pushed himself off of the ground. His blood soaked clothes clung to his frame. He could already feel his strength leaving his body. But, it did not matter. Elana was more important. He reached her just as her eyes rolled back in her skull. Her life had been snuffed out.
The murderous beast roared at Dakota, demanding he stay away from his kill. He began at her stomach, tearing it open with his claw and devouring her insides. Blood coated his muzzle. He moved up to her limbs, biting off fingers and toes.
Dakota was grateful he did not witnessed the mutilation of his beautiful wife. He had fled to the kitchen, selected the largest knife he could find, and upon re-entry into the living room, hurled it at the creature.
The knife cut through the air as if it was flying of its own accord. It sliced neatly, perfectly, through the ear and across the face of the beast. His upper cheek separated from his lower cheek. The blood from the hole in his ear mingled with the blood from his severed cheeks as it dripped onto his paw. The leopard was permanently disfigured.
Dakota threw himself at the beast, not caring if he lived or died, stabbing mercilessly with his good arm and a second knife. He figured he had definitely hit more than one major vein due to the fountains of blood staining the floor.
The leopard stood, vigorously shaking to remove Dakota from his back. Dakota could not hang on any longer. He rolled to the floor.
The leopard beat him, separating scalp from skull with his claws. He snarled again, his nose, still dripping with Elana's blood, scarcely an inch from Dakota's lips. Then, for reasons known only to the man-eater himself, the leopard left, leaping off of the porch and vanishing into the night.
Dakota was grateful his legs still worked. He crawled over to his wife's body. Gingerly lifting her head into his lap, he closed her eyes for the last time. Grief smashed into him, devouring him whole, shaking him to the very center of his core. His wife, his precious, smart, amazing, beautiful wife was now dead, drenched in her own blood.
"Wouldn't it be nice to be able to spend the rest of our lives here?" Dakota asked his wife.
"It would be a dream come true." she replied. "I'd love to spend my final days here."
Hot tears mingled with blood as both streamed down his face. Those words . . . That question haunted him. He knew it would haunt him for the rest of his days. He had taken her on the trip that had killed her. He would never forgive himself for that.
Miraculously, her face was unscathed. He ran his hand down it one last time, leaving behind a blood streak mixed with tears. His hand traveled down her neck. The necklace she had bought still hung there. He grimaced at the fact that she had loved leopards, and leopards were what had killed her. He unclasped the necklace, and wrapped it around his own hand. His tears flowed freely now, and as her body grew cold, he vowed to her, "I will come back. I will do whatever it takes to come back and kill this beast. He will die. I promise you. I love you. I love you. I love you." He gently closed her eyes, tenderly cradling her head in his lap as sobs shook through his entire body.
Over the course of the two years that followed, Dakota was plagued nightly by visions and memories of the unspeakable dreadfulness he had gone through. The days blended into one as they drifted by. He shut himself off from his friends and family as much as possible, devoting himself fully to the path of revenge that lay before him. He spent countless hours learning how to track animals, what habits leopards had and even did a little research on man-eaters. He darkly hoped the beast hadn't succumbed to its wounds so he could fulfill his last promise to Elana.
As for Dakota himself, some wounds healed better than others. He had a long scar across his scalp. Most of it was covered by hair, but some still dashed across his cheekbones. He never regained full use of his shoulder, arm, or his hand, and lost feeling in them as well. He had numerous other scars, but thankfully, his ribs had healed up nicely. He had almost died that night as well, and was grateful nothing else had gone after him when he had made his way to the village to find someone, anyone, who had medical knowledge. At least Elana had died before she had to feel the full extent of the pain.
He still felt the anguish in his heart as fully as he did when he saw Elana die. That wound, he knew, would never heal.
The time had come. There he was, sitting in a bar two miles from the village the rental house had been, rifle hidden in the trunk of his car, whiskey in hand. He tipped his head up and downed the last drop. Slamming his glass back on the bar with the money alongside it, he walked out of the door with a confident swagger. His confidence was only external, however, because with every step he took toward his truck and that house only drove his fear in further. He didn't know what he would be facing. He wasn't even sure the animal would be there. He felt he should head there first though. At least it was a start.
The motor silenced in the driveway of the rental house. It looked old, abandoned. It seemed the old couple renting out the house had stopped after Elana's death. It looked like they hadn't even wanted to think about the atrocity that had happened there, and merely cut off the heat and electric. It had been left to rot.
He hoped to God they had cleaned up the mess of blood. He knew the body was gone. The village healer had taken her. A mortician in America had reconstructed her as best as he could. Now, she was buried near her grandparents in her church's cemetery.
He stepped over to the door, surprised when it slid open without him even turning the lock. He had been right. No one had been here since the bloodbath.
He lifted his rifle from his shoulders, holding it in front of him so he could fire at any moment, stepping over bones and animal remains as he walked. He felt paranoid, but after what he had been through, he couldn't be blamed.
Icy fingers embraced his heart when he walked into the next room. Despite the heat, chills danced up and down his spine. It was there. It was devouring the remains of a deer atop an old bloodstain in the center of the room. Dakota lined up his sites and set his finger on the trigger.
The leopard took another taste of his deer. The slight movement was enough to allow the moonlight pierce through a significant hole in the leopard's ear and light up a long scar on his cheek. Dakota shivered yet again. There was the devil that killed his wife. He raised the rifle.
The sound was enough to attract the attention of the animal. He rose off of his haunches and faced Dakota, pacing slowly towards him.
Dakota's hands were shaking. He pulled the trigger swiftly, but missed, shooting the monster in the leg. The shot hardly mattered to the beast. He kept walking towards a quaking Dakota, who believed he was seeing Satan in those yellow eyes.
"He will die. I promise you. I love you."
His words replayed themselves in his mind. His last promise to Elana, to have revenge on her killer, was something he couldn't bear to break. The last thing he would ever do for her couldn't remain undone.
In an effortless bound, the leopard leapt for Dakota's throat.
As if time had suddenly slowed, the leopard seemed to immobilize in midair. Dakota seized the opportunity, rolling out of the path of the beast less than a second before it landed. He scrambled to his feet just in time to see the creature throw itself at his back, Dakota plummeted to the ground, his face colliding hard with the floor, squirming under the weight of the leopard, demanding every ounce of his strength to come to his aid. The creature's sheer immensity made it impossible for him to move. Dakota could feel it sniffing the back of his head with the intent of breaking his skull and devouring the contents. He trembled as the leopard's cold nose traveled down his neck toward his back. The man clenched his muscles, praying that the spotted demon would choose not to sever his spinal cord.
He selected Dakota's good arm instead. Dakota wrenched his himself away from the beast's jaws, managing to escape all but a few severely deep scratches. He twisted onto his back, cocked his rifle, and fired. Hot blood and who-knows-what-else splattered across his face and body. There was blood splashed across the walls and ceiling. The devil's brains had been destroyed. His body fell with a thump on top of Dakota. Dakota's breath was knocked out of him, and he knew those same ribs had been fractured again.
More blood leaked out of the leopard's massive head, staining Dakota's clothes. He could care less. He had fulfilled his last promise to Elana. His thirst for revenge had been resolved.
He shuffled his way out from under the leopard, taking the time to bury another bullet inside the remains of the leopard's head, and one more in its bloody body.
He had closure now. A sense of finality. There was nothing left for him to do.
He ran his finger around the leopard claw necklace.
Elana, I will never forget you.