Chapter 1 Black Cat
Bain gripped the handles as the road flew beneath him. Salty warm air rushed by his ears, but not fast enough. If the road didn't twist at all, he'd go a hundred miles per hour just to feel the pressure of the air on his face. He hated flying, but this? He smiled knowing that he risked a bug smacking him in his teeth. This had to be the best mode of transportation in the world.
Erin hadn't said it out loud, but he suspected she didn't appreciate the beauty of the machine. He'd call it a motorcycle, but this one was in a class of its own. Nothing could quite match up the custom job he'd managed. It was the one time when he almost felt guilty for using money from the Ālfheim castle. Almost. He never realized money could buy so much happiness.
School was out, for good this time. His training at the kingdom was done. Agnar gave up on him a while ago and Aelflaed pronounced him botanically worthy. It wasn't like there was a graduation ceremony, but as far as he could tell, he was done with älv school, if it could be called that. They didn't require geometry, chemistry or a foreign language, but how many high schools required a mastery in magic, wand use and swordplay?
And since he was done, it wasn't hard to convince his mom and sister that he needed some air. Well, space was more like it. Bain needed some real-time. He felt like he had lost touch with the outside world in so many ways. Living with his mom and sister in the castle while going to classes full time probably did it to him. Sure, there was internet access, but even that started to feel more surreal than real.
There was nothing for it than to buy a bike and ride. Even grandpa Jessie chuckled and told his mom that it was a guy thing. Not to worry. Carbonell had slapped him on the back and slipped a wad of cash in his pocket. Uncle Carbonell. He still couldn't bring himself to call him that even though he married Aunt Lyndera over a year ago. Lyndy, as Carbonell always called her. He had everyone calling her that. Figured.
Somewhere in his head, Bain told himself that he was actually looking for Xavene, but that inner voice was easy to dispel under certain circumstances. Especially circumstances that required swimming with mermaids in the clearest water he'd ever seen. The shark imp seemed to have moved on to deeper waters because Bain hadn't seen him in all the times he'd been here. Kelura and he were practically dating, if you could count underwater time with dolphins and mermaids a date. There would never be dinner and a movie.
That was okay, though. That was a few months ago and he didn't need a serious relationship right now. Erin and Joel had enough serious relationship to repel even the most romantic. Maybe that was another part of why Bain left. Without classes to keep him busy, he couldn't sit around doing nothing while Erin and Joel spent all their time being the castle sweethearts. He was happy for her. And Joel was great. But really, there was only so much he could take of watching the two of them walk hand-in-hand.
Eventually he stopped and put his motorcycle up for the night. Thanks to Lyndy, he had his own version of an endless suitcase. Okay, man-bag. European shoulder bag. No, really it was a purse. But when he could pull a sofa out of it, a bed, or anything else, including the kitchen sink, it just couldn't matter enough if he was caught holding his aunt's purse. At least he could store it in the saddlebags while he rode.
He set up camp and looked over the water as night settled in. He learned a while ago that bugs had no interest in him, and wild predators left him alone too. Even without a sword and a magic wand, he could outrun any animal if he wanted to. When the night crept in, it wasn't the animals that worried him. It was the people. Tribes would often send scouts out to see who was on their territory.
Had he not seen it for himself so many times, he wouldn't have believed it. There were tribes still in this world that ran around with spears, sometimes completely naked, and most often untrusting. It wasn't that he was afraid for himself; he just never wanted to have to hurt one of them, accidentally or otherwise.
First it was Africa, then South America. He knew South America called to him the most and he tried not to think it was because of Xavene, but he couldn't be here and not remember. Xavene abandoned the last location. He'd already checked. Bain lost track of what country he was in. It might have been Brazil. If he really wanted to know, he could look. These days he used his changing brooch as a translator, but he was getting more Spanish and Portuguese everyday.
A branch moved ever so slightly. Bain looked past the firelight and his eyes met those of a black panther. Animals seemed to have a natural sense to avoid him, but this one came right up to the fire. Bain gripped the wand that was already in his hand. The panther circled the fire and stopped in front of him. Its eyes never left Bain's.
Maybe this one was hungry enough to consider him dinner. Bain lifted his wand ever so slightly.
The panther shook his head back and forth. "You don't need to use that," it said.
Bain's mouth popped open at the panther's words.
"Let's just say that not all of Xavene's ideas went as planned."
Bain stared back, unable to form words. The panther was talking. It was too perfectly sized and sleek to be an imp. It should have looked like a mutated monster, but the black cat was nothing, if not beautiful.
The panther settled on the ground at the foot of the sofa. "If it's all the same to you, I think I'm going to call it a night. Being nocturnal is overrated."
Bain pulled the blanket up higher and pulled his feet up on the end of the couch. "Just don't try anything. It would be a shame to have to kill a talking panther."
The panther lowered his head to his paws. "It was shame that created me."
Bain didn't respond, but watched the animal close its eyes. Noises of the night filled the air once again. The fire crackled as a log rolled off the pile, but as far as Bain could tell, the animal slept. It shouldn't have been able to form words with a mouth like that. It seemed like its long tongue and huge incisors would get in the way. But here it was, sleeping like a house cat curled up in front of the fire.
Erin was never going to believe this.