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Noon. The heat rising from the ground gave the air above it a strange shimmer, deceiving unwary travelers into believing mirages and mistaking reality for images. A hot breeze rustled the long, yellowed grasses of the African savanna.
Through these golden waves prowled what appeared to be a leopard, moving purposefully with graceful, soundless strides. Most leopards were asleep at this time, but she was different. Her prey emerged during the daytime more often than in the night—and it was easier to hunt when they saw her. Shemei’s prey were drawn to her beauty, in either form. All she had to do was play the part: The most innocent predator—or the most dangerous game.
Shemei’s left ear twitched; she swung her head towards the sound, and spotted a man, alone, following her. Inwardly she smirked, then continued on her way, well aware of the distant footsteps, and happy for them. Soon she came to what could be considered a “clearing:” there was a lone tree, with a thick trunk and sprawling branches that provided a shady respite from the blistering sun. The grass was shorter here, and with a little more color than the knee-high stalks surrounding it. There was also a small, muddy stream weaving its way past, circumventing the tree before disappearing back into the rest of the savanna.
Perfect, she thought menacingly. Shemei slinked over to the tree and perched in between two large roots jutting above ground. Then, she changed.
The body of a big cat shifted, unseen forces molding it to fit the shape of a biped—a human, to be precise. The silky fur flowed back and smoothed into skin, darkening into a chocolaty, blackish-brown shade. Dark, glossy hair sprouted from her head and tumbled in elegant curls most of the way down her back, while her face shrank back into the beautiful mask of a woman: flawless skin, full lips, a perfectly proportioned nose, and brown eyes with a deceptive softness in them. They made her seem less threatening.
Still curled in a cat-like position, Shemei watched and waited. Her prey was coming.
Shemei heard him exit the knee-high grass while she feigned sleep. She had to fight the urge to leap up and kill him right away; animal instinct, with her, had to wait in line behind revenge.
The footsteps were silent for a moment, and the hairs on the back of her neck tingled because his eyes were on her. She kept her breathing slow and steady, her features serene; he must suspect nothing. He began walking toward her, discreetly in his mind, thought the crunch of his boots on dirt was really rather loud to her. He stopped, and knelt just beside her, and then Shemei felt his hand on her shoulder—he was shaking her gently, saying, “Hey, wake up. It’s not safe.”
She groaned, allowing her eyelids to flutter open while absently turning her head sideways to face him. Her eyes focused on his face…and a wave of recognition crashed on her, so forcefully that the air was cast out of her lungs in a gasp.
It was his face.
Shemei started scrambling backward, but he grabbed her shoulders and all but forced her to make eye contact. In a few moments she’d composed herself and masked the fear, anger, and sorrow in her eyes with the perfect façade.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
Shemei laughed “nervously” before replying: “Oh, I’m sorry, you just startled me.” She dropped her gaze and bit her lip, then slowly brought her eyes back up to meet his. “Who are you?”
“My name’s Ramsey. I’m studying leopards for National Geographic. I only came this way because I thought I saw one heading in this direction. It might still be around, so you should probably come with me—”
Shemei had stopped paying attention halfway through his little speech. She was desperately trying to stay the onslaught of memories flooding her consciousness; they were almost too much to bear.
She’d never been a bad demon. Shemei had always wanted to fit in with humans, so she adopted a human’s way of life, befriended and loved humans just as she would her own kind. Sure, it could be tough, considering she was immortal, and she had to leave her home every few years and start over somewhere else, but it seemed worth it. Until he appeared.
She fell in love…and then she told him her secret, trusting him enough to reveal that which she never had before. And he betrayed her, called her a monster and led the hunt for her. He’d stabbed her in the back, and the blade pierced her heart, too.
Now Shemei lived on the savanna, and her favorite prey was men.
But this one, he had the face of her once-beloved, like a reincarnation back to haunt her. As if a ghostly encounter could deter her need for revenge—she needed it, despite the feeble whispers of love struggling to break through the ice in her heart.
She realized then that if this was a reincarnation, her strike of vengeance would be all the sweeter.
A flirtatious grin danced across her face, clearly baffling Ramsey, whose speech faltered at her sudden change in mood. He frowned, asking, “Are you sure everything’s all right?”
“Oh, yes,” she said sweetly, cocking her head and gazing up at him, her eyes sparkling mischievously, “You…remind me of someone I knew…it was quite along time ago, though, when I last saw him.” Again, the memories and feelings assailed her, and it took all the strength she could muster to keep her face as a facsimile of charm and interest. Shemei couldn’t remember the last time she’d felt so weak…her gut clenched into complicated knots, her blood boiling from the emotions pouring through her.
And even though she didn’t trust her shaking legs to support her, the thirst for revenge was consuming her. She needed it; by avenging her broken heart, she could free it from its bitterly cold prison.
Shemei focused her attention back on Ramsey—he was still utterly confused—and she felt a brief spasm of pity. This man would die without an inkling of what his crime was.
He had, at some point, seated himself next to her, within arm’s reach. Big mistake. Shemei reached a hand out and brushed her fingers across his cheek, smirking dangerously at his shudder. Her eyes finally revealed the truth, though: the demoness was infinitely and irreparably sad.
“I’m terribly sorry, but I need a favor, and you don’t have any choice in the matter.”
Before he could stutter a word of protest, Shemei morphed into a leopard, her true form, and leaped at him, tearing into his flesh with claws and jaws. The muddied stream a few feet away was suddenly filled with swirling crimson clouds.
When she’d finished, Shemei changed back into the beautiful woman, but Ramsey’s blood still stained her hands and face…
And when the tears came, they painted red streaks across her formerly flawless skin.