The presence of a vampire presented Curran with a dilemma. He refused to ride a horse, but he refused to let me travel in a company of an undead without backup either, so a compromise had to be reached. We stopped by Cutting Edge office to get Andrea. Unfortunately, she was out. Apparently some shapeshifters were murdered and Jim pulled her in to head that investigation, the fact that he, of course, neglected to mention. We kidnapped Derek and Ascanio instead.
Derek was our third employee. Once my sidekick, then Jim's spy, then a chief of Curran's personal guard, he was now working for the Cutting Edge to acquire experience and figure out what it was he wanted to do. When I first met him, he was barely eighteen and pretty. Now he was close to twenty. Some bastards had poured molten silver on his face. The bastards were now dead, but he'd never healed quite right.
Ascanio was our intern. He was fifteen, he was pretty as an angel, and he was a bouda, a werehyena. Bouda children rarely survived adolescence - many of them lost the fight for their sanity and went loup - and Ascanio was treasured, babied, and spoiled beyond all reason. Unfortunately, he'd gotten in trouble one too many times and was given to me, because it was decided I was the least likely to kill him.
Derek and Ascanio rode behind me, bickering quietly about something. Ahead of me the lime-green nightmare that was Ghastek's vampire trotted along the road in a jerky, looping gait. Most vampires eventually lost their ability to run upright, reverting to quadruped locomotion as the Immortus pathogen reshaped its victim's body into a new nightmare predator. I had come across very old vamps before. They didn't even resemble their former human shapes. But the vamp Ghastek piloted was only a few months old. It loped forward, scuttling along the ground, and shambling two thirds upright the next like some grotesque puppet on the strings of a drunken puppeteer.
Next to the vampire cantered a freakishly large black poodle. His name was Grendel, he was my dog, and while he wasn't the sharpest tool on the shed, he loved me and he was handy in a fight.
A few dozen yards behind us, an enormous lion trotted. When shapeshifters transformed, their animal forms were always larger than their natural counterparts, and Curran the Lion wasn't just large. He looked prehistoric. Colossal, grey, with faint darker stripes staining his fur like whip-marks, he moved along the road at an easy pace, seemingly tireless. Which was why I ended up with The Dude. I had walked into the stables and told them I'd be traveling between a vampire and a lion the size of a rhino and I needed a horse that wouldn't freak out. True to the stable master's recommendation, The Dude seemed unflappable. Occasionally, when Curran flanked us, he would flare his nostrils a bit while the other two horses shied and made panicked noises, but mostly The Dude just pounded his way in a straight line, convinced that the lion was a figment of his imagination and that the vampire ahead of him was just Grendel's deformed mutant brother.
We were our own three ring circus. Sadly we had no audience: to the left of us forest rose in a jagged line and to the right a low hill climbed up, rocks and grass, before running into another line of trees at the apex.
"I've never met the neo-vikings," Ascanio said.
"A good portion of them are mercs," I said over my shoulder. "They're a rowdy lot and not really what you would call true to tradition. Some are, but most are there because they saw a movie or two in childhood and think viking is a noun."
"It's not?" Derek asked.
"No. Originally it was a verb as in to go viking. The Norse Heritage guys wear horned helmets, drink beer out of a giant vat, and start fights. As neo-Viking communities go, they are better off financially than most so they can afford to have some fun."
"Where do they get their money?" Derek asked.
I nodded at the curving road. "Around that bend."
A couple of minutes later we cleared the curve. A vast lake spread on our left. Blue-green water stretched into the distance, tinted with bluish haze. Here and there green islands ringed with sand thrust through the water. To the right, an enormous mead hall built with huge timbers rose from the crest of a low hill like the armored back of some sea serpent. As we stood there, two karves, the longboats, slid from behind the nearest island, their carved dragon heads rising high above the lake's surface.
Ascanio raised his hand to shield his eyes.
"Lake Lanier," I told him. "The Norse Heritage has built a river fleet of Dragon Ships. They're not the only neo-Vikings in the region. There are several Norse groups along the Eastern seaboard and quite a few of them want to cruise up and down the coast in a proper boat. The Norse Heritage sells them boats and trains these wannabe raiders for shallow water sailing. They also give vacationers a ride for the right price. They're kind of touchy about it, so I wouldn't ask if they do children parties."
Ascanio cracked a smile. "Or what, they'll try to drown us in their beer vat?" "Try being the operative word."
We started toward the mead hall. Midway up the hill, the vampire paused. A man walked out in the middle of the road from behind a birch. Six and a half feet tall, he stood wrapped in chain mail. A cape of black fur billowed from his shoulders. His war helm, a near perfect replication of Gjermundbu Helmet, shielded the top of his head and half of his face. The stainless steel had been polished until the sun rays slid off of it, as if he wore a mirror on his head. The man carried an enormous single axe on a long wooden handle. I'd tried to pick up the axe once and it weighed about ten pounds at least. He was slower than molasses in January with it, but it looked impressive.