Indebted (The Premonition #3)


by Amy A. Bartol

CHAPTER 1

Jade Dragon Mountain

He can’t hide from me. Not that he is ever trying to, but still, it’s impossible. I know where he is at all times. I’m attuned to his voice, his scent…the beat of his heart. It’s my favorite pastime these days—stalking Reed. It’s a game that I play without knowing that I’m playing it half the time. I hunt him…and he lets me.

As I move through the stone-walled courtyard, my bare feet make almost no sound while I traverse the stone bridge that crosses a tranquil plunge pool in the middle of the Zen garden. A galaxy of stars reflects in the water beneath me, but they can’t hold my attention. Reed is ahead of me, in the bedroom of the Naxi-inspired pagoda that we have been sharing. He is poring over maps of the surrounding terrain. Reed studies these maps frequently, learning everything he can about Lijiang and the Jade Dragon Mountain that has been our base of operations since we arrived in China last week. He has been very busy—too busy.

My eyes shift to the banyan trees in the courtyard that nestles just outside the wide doorway of the pagoda. Illuminated red-paper lanterns are strung within its weeping branches. The light from the lanterns turns my pale skin pink as I creep behind the twisted trunk. I scan the slate porch from my leafy position. The doors are open, allowing the breeze to pass freely through the room on either side. Reed hasn’t looked up from his seat at the desk, but that doesn’t mean that he doesn’t know I’m here. I can’t tell if he has sensed that I’m stalking him; he never gives anything away.

I study him for a moment. His dark brown hair has gotten longer than how he had been wearing it in Crestwood. But, I like it; it looks very sexy. His body is curved at sensual angles, making me want to touch him, to feel the raw power beneath his skin. His wings are in, so he looks completely human, well, as human as Reed can look. Since he is absolutely ethereal, I can’t see him as anything but angelic now.

When I look up at the arcing, gray tiled roof of the pagoda, I try to see if there is another way in—a sneakier way because I want to take him by surprise—jolt him out of his tactical plotting. He has been singularly focused since our arrival: amassing an angelic army, one strong enough to match Brennus’ army.

I shiver at the thought of Brennus. With a little luck, Brennus and his army of Gancanagh are half a world away. Reed is going to great lengths to protect me from Brennus. He has literally gone to the other end of the Earth to accomplish it, bringing me to China, to the secluded base of an enormous snow-capped mountain. Reed and Zephyr have been working on little else other than keeping me safe from the Gancanagh leader who wants to make me his queen…his undead lover. I cannot allow that to happen. If he gets me back and bites me, there is little chance that I will not succumb to his venom and become one of them. Now that I’m reunited with Reed, I’m desperate to remain with him, no matter what.

A deep, primal growl, coming from the room ahead of me, makes me freeze where I am. I glance back towards the room and every hair on my arms rises. Another low, rumbling growl drifts to me on the gentle breeze that stirs wisps of my auburn hair around my face. The sound is terrifying in its intensity, and every instinct within me urges me to run from it as my eyes connect with the animal making it. Fierce green irises peer at me from the enormous, sleek cat crouching before me near the doorway to the pagoda. A shiver of pure fear shakes me as I involuntarily take a step back from the massive, black killer.

“Nice kitty…” I whisper to it, taking another shaky step backward and feeling the rough bark of the tree at my back, impeding my retreat. “Reed!” I whisper urgently as I cast a glance into the room, but he is no longer seated at the desk. My eyes fly back to the aggressive animal in front of me that is stalking me like I’m a luscious morsel. The panther’s muscles tense, looking as if it will pounce on me at any moment. I look wildly around for an exit strategy while several killing scenarios pulse in my mind, but I would rather try to run than try to engage it.

“Stay!” I command the panther, watching its tail swish as it deepens its crouch. It’s not listening to me—it looks like it’s enjoying itself immensely, the way its tail is swishing back and forth like it’s toying with a mouse or something. Hide, I think when the hackles rise on its sleek, black pelt.

“Reed!” I squeak, watching the cat bound up and lunge in my direction. I squeeze my eyes closed, holding my breath and pressing deeper into the tree, waiting to feel its sharp teeth sink into my skin.

“Evie!” Reed says from directly in front of me. I open my eyes to find that Reed is no more than inches from my face, looking at me with panic in his eyes. His powerful, charcoalgray wings are arcing out around him, shielding us. His hand reaches out, cupping my cheek.

I try to answer him, but I find that my entire body has gone rigid, so much so that I cannot even move my mouth to speak his name. Reed braces his hands on my shoulders, running his hands up and down me as if he cannot see me. “Evie?” he says again, but this time he is leaning into me, inhaling the air near my face. I try again to speak, but I feel stiff.

It takes several seconds for some of the rigidity in my limbs to ease, allowing me to inhale a breath as I look up into the face that I love above all others. “Big cat!” I utter as I attempt to pull away from the tree at my back only to find that I am entangled in vines that are holding me to the trunk. Looking at my arms, they have taken on the rough texture of the mossy bark of the tree. When I raise my hand to my eyes, my fingers appear twig-like as I wave them in fascination and horror. “What the—” I inhale a sharp breath, my eyes move to Reed who is observing me now with a mixture of pleasure and awe on his face.

“You can relax, Evie, it’s not permanent,” Reed says to reassure me. “You are evolving. It appears, you can change your shape now,” he says, smiling and raising one of his brows.

“But—I’m a tree,” I whisper to him, feeling appalled by my current shape. I have taken on the mossy exterior of the banyan tree that I’m near.

“Yes, but you are not really a tree—you are more like a chameleon,” he says as he leans his face closer to my ear, brushing his cheek to mine. I feel the suppleness of his skin against the course roughness of my current bark-like exterior, which causes a small measure of my fear to melt away.

“Buns said that when this shapeshifting thing evolved I would be able to turn into butterflies or something, like she can.” I respond, remembering how Buns had shapeshifted before my eyes into a swarm of butterflies to demonstrate her angelic ability to me. I’m beginning to feel disappointed over my current predicament of looking like some sort of woodland sprite. I was really hoping to be more like my friends, the angels, when I evolve, not less like them. I’m already too different from them, being only half angel and the rest of me human that this is just one more thing that will separate me from being seen as one of them.

“This is so much better than that, don’t you see? he asks me, grinning.

“No, from this angle, it kind of sucks, Reed.” I reply, stepping forward as my knees become less rigid, enough to bend them as I pull away from the tree that I had become a part of only moments ago. Reed wraps his arms around me, steadying me by pulling me tight against him.

“No, what you can do is so much better. We have to change into something animate, like butterflies or a panther, but you can change your shape to reflect your surroundings…camouflaging yourself. It’s a huge asset—” Reed says with excitement until I cut him off.

“That was you!” I accuse him as my skin begins to take on its normal hue and I start to change back to my original form. “You changed into a panther!”

A chuckle escapes Reed then as he hugs me tighter. “I thought for sure you knew it was me, but you didn’t, did you?” he asks.

“I probably should’ve known. Your eyes were the exact same color as the cat’s eyes. I’ve always thought that you move just like a cat,” I say, gazing up into his perfect face that is mere inches from my own. “Is that the only shape you can take or will I be running from a bear next time?”

“Oh, I can take many, many forms, but I cannot do what you can do—my forms have to be animate. I have to change into an animal, but you—do you think you can do other forms?” he asks with excitement. “Do you think that it has to be just a solid form—can you be liquid…air?”

“I don’t know.” I reply honestly.

“What were you thinking right before you changed?” he asks. “Were you thinking ‘tree?’”

“No…I was thinking ‘hide,’” I reply.

“Of course!” Reed exclaims. “I have someone I want you to meet. His name is Wook and he is a Virtue angel, like Phaedrus, who has lived near the Naxi for several centuries. He has studied the Tibetan monks and the Naxi mystics and has seen some of their abilities. Perhaps, he can instruct you to hone your human capabilities. I will not be much help to you in that, as I have little insight into the human side of your nature.”

“You think this is a human trait?” I ask Reed with a skeptical look, “Because I can’t think of any human that I know of who can change herself into a tree.”

Reed’s eyebrow arches in a cunning way. “I don’t know, maybe it’s a hybrid trait. No angel I know of can do what you just did. It is very unique,” he says, and awe is back in his voice again.

“I don’t even know if I can do it again, Reed,” I reply, feeling strange about what just happened. This evolution into a stronger being is really disturbing. It takes the awkwardness of puberty to a whole new level, I think. “And maybe we shouldn’t tell anybody about it.”

“Why not?” Reed asks, frowning now while scanning my face.

“Because it’s unnatural and…freakish,” I reply as casually as I can, but I’m a little too stiff just yet to pull off the casual shrug.

“Evie, you don’t understand, this is ‘mad cool’ to use your words. It makes you even more dangerous!” Reed breathes and I can see he is really charged up about this. Searching his face for signs of disgust, I can find none. He is truly happy that I can now turn into something else. He must be worried that he will not be able to defend me. He must see this as one more evasion technique.