“Your mistress?” Alabaster scowled. He had a feeling she wasn’t talking about Hecate.
“Oh, yes.” Lamia dodged his strike. Her arms were already re-forming. “Kronos failed, but now my mistress has risen. She is greater than any Titan or god. She will destroy Olympus and lead the children of Hecate to their golden age. Unfortunately, my mistress doesn’t trust you. She doesn’t want you alive to interfere.”
“You and your mistress can go to Tartarus for all I care!” Alabaster roared, slicing Lamia’s head clean down the middle. “Are you in league with the gods now? Did Hera send you to kill me?”
The two halves of Lamia’s mouth wailed. “Do not mention that name in my presence! That crone destroyed my family! Don’t you understand, brother? Haven’t you read my myths?”
Alabaster sneered. “I don’t bother reading about worthless monsters like you!”
“Monster?” she shrieked as her face mended. “Hera is the monster! She destroys all the women her husband falls in love with. She hunts down their offspring out of jealousy and spite! She killed my children! My children!”
Lamia’s right arm re-formed, and she held it in front of her, trembling with rage. “I can still see their lifeless bodies in front of me.…Altheia wanted to be an artist. I remember the days when she apprenticed under my kingdom’s finest sculptors.…She was a child prodigy. Her skills rivaled even those of Athena. Demetrius was nine, five days from his tenth birthday. He was a wonderful and strong boy, always trying to make his mother proud. He was willing to do anything in order to prepare for the day he took his place as king of Libya. They both worked so hard, they both had amazing futures ahead of them. But then what did Hera do? She brutally murdered them simply to punish me for accepting Zeus’s courtship! She’s the one who deserves to rot in Tartarus!”
Alabaster swung again. This time Lamia did the impossible—she stopped the blade, catching the Imperial gold edge with her reptilian claw.
Alabaster tried to pull his sword free, but Lamia held it fast. She put her face close to his.
“You know what happened next, brother?” she whispered. Her breath smelled like freshly spilled blood. “My life as queen may have been over, but my hatred was just beginning. Using Mother’s power I crafted a very special incantation, one that allowed all the monsters in the world to sense the taint of half-bloods…” She smiled. “Maybe after a few thousand more of you die, Hera, the goddess of family, will finally understand my pain!”
Alabaster caught his breath. “What did you just say?”
“Yes, you heard me! I was the one who made all of your lives a living nightmare! I gave monsters the ability to track demigods! I am Lamia, the butcher of the tainted! And once you are dead, our other siblings will follow me as their queen. They will join me or die! My mistress—Mother Earth herself—has promised she will return my children to me.” Lamia laughed with delight. “They will live again, and all I have to do is kill you!”
Alabaster managed to tug his sword from her grip, but Lamia was too close. She thrust out her claws to tear out his heart. There was a sharp BANG! and Lamia staggered backward, a bullet hole in her scaly chest. Alabaster swung his blade, cutting her in half at the waist, and Lamia crumbled into a pile of black sand.
Alabaster glanced back at Claymore, who was standing ten feet to his right, holding a gun. “What are you doing here? She could have killed you!”
Claymore smiled. “I saw that you were doing just as pitiful a job as I, so I thought I’d lend a hand. I had to do something with my last bullet.”
Alabaster stared at him in amazement. “Gods, you really are arrogant.”
“I’ve heard that a lot lately. I’m going to start taking it as a compliment.” Claymore looked down at Lamia’s body, which was already re-forming. “A Swiffer would be helpful right now. She’ll be back any minute.”
Alabaster tried to think, but he felt exhausted. Most of his incantations were gone. His defenses were destroyed. “We have to get out of here.”
Claymore shook his head. “Running hasn’t helped you before. We need a way to deal with her. She said her life was sustained by her mistress…”
“Mother Earth,” Alabaster said. “Gaea. She tried to overthrow the gods once before in the ancient times. But how does that help us?”
Claymore picked up a handful of black sand and watched it writhing, trying to re-form. “Earth…” he mused. “If sending Lamia back to Tartarus doesn’t work, if she won’t stay dead, isn’t there a way to imprison her on this earth?”
Alabaster frowned. Then a lightbulb went off in his head.
He had expected this man, this genius, to have a more complicated answer. Alabaster expected that if he told Claymore about the Underworld and what caused death for monsters, the best mind of the century could tell him how to kill Lamia permanently.
But the answer was much simpler than that. Claymore had just unwittingly solved the problem.
They couldn’t kill Lamia for good. The earth goddess Gaea would simply let her back into the mortal world again and again. But what if they didn’t try to send her to Tartarus? What if this earth became Lamia’s prison instead?
Alabaster looked him in the eyes. “We have to get back inside my house! I think I know a way to stop her.”
“Are you sure?” Claymore asked. “How?”
Alabaster shook his head. “No time! Just look for the book on my nightstand. If we get that, we can stop her. Now go!”
Claymore nodded, and they ran toward the front door.
Alabaster had had the power to stop her all along and he just hadn’t known it. But now he had the answer. And there wasn’t a monster in the world that could stop him.
Claymore was tired of running.
His young friend Alabaster looked like he could still go for miles despite the hundred-pound sword he was carrying. And Alabaster had been withstanding Lamia’s attacks for weeks.
Claymore was a different story. After evading Lamia for only a few hours, he was about to collapse. Half-bloods must have been made of sterner stuff than humans.
Alabaster tore through the living room. He glanced back, grinning ear to ear, and gestured at Claymore to hurry. “It was here all along! Gods, I wish I had known!”
Thunder cracked outside, and Claymore frowned. “You can save that talk for after we win. Let’s hope your magic bullet actually works.”
Alabaster nodded. “I’m sure of it! Every form of invincibility has a weak point. Tanks have a hatch, Achilles had a heel, and Lamia has this.”
Looking at Alabaster’s expression, Claymore almost smiled. This was the happy-go-lucky boy that he was supposed to be—not a half-blood warrior who expected to die by the age of twenty.
He seemed like a normal sixteen-year-old with a full life ahead of him.…
Maybe after Lamia was dead, Alabaster could live that life. Maybe, if the gods would let him have it.…
But what was Claymore going to do? His entire life had been devoted to finding an answer to death, but in the past day he’d discovered that everything he’d come to believe was a lie. Or rather, the lies he’d dismissed all his life were actually true.
How was Claymore supposed to make a difference now? How could a middle-aged man with no special powers even start to affect a world of gods and monsters?
His old life seemed meaningless—his deadlines, his book signings. That life had melted along with his laptop in Black’s Coffee. Would this new world even have a place for a mortal like him?
Alabaster led him up the stairs and into a small bedroom. The walls were covered in the same green runes that were on Alabaster’s clothing. All of them glowed to life as he walked inside and picked up the notebook from his nightstand.
“This is a shorthand incantation,” he explained. “I’m sure it will work. It has to!”
The boy turned toward Claymore, who was waiting at the door. Alabaster’s smile melted. His expression changed to horror.
A split second later Claymore realized why. Cold claws pricked against the back of his neck. Lamia’s voice crackled next to his ear.
“If you speak one word of that incantation, I’ll kill him,” Lamia threatened. “Drop the book, and perhaps I’ll spare his life.”
Claymore stared at the boy, expecting him to read the spell anyway, but like an idiot, he dropped the book.
“What are you doing?” Claymore growled. “Read the spell!”
Alabaster was frozen, like a thousand people were looking at him. “I—I can’t.…She’ll—”
“Don’t think about me!” Claymore yelled, as Lamia dug her claws deeper into his neck.
Then she whispered by his ear: “Incantare: Templum Incendere.”
The book at Alabaster’s feet burst into flame.
“What are you doing, you idiot?” Claymore roared at the boy. “You’re smarter than that, Alabaster! If you don’t read that spell, you will die too!”
A tear traced its way down Alabaster’s cheek. “Don’t you understand? I don’t want anyone else to die because of me. I led my siblings to their deaths!”
Claymore scowled. Could the boy not see the book burning?
Lamia cackled as the notebook’s cover curled to ashes. The pages wouldn’t last much longer. There was no time to convince the thickheaded boy. Claymore would have to spur him into action.
“Alabaster…what happens when we die?”
“Stop saying that!” Alabaster screamed. “You’re going to be fine!”
But Claymore just shook his head. He was the only thing keeping Alabaster from reading the book, so the path he had to take was clear. He had to destroy the last obstacle in Alabaster’s way.
To avenge Burly, to save this one child from the gods, he knew what he had to do.
“Alabaster, you told me earlier that heroes don’t die. You may be right, but I can tell you one thing.” Claymore looked the boy in the eyes. “I’m not a hero.”
With that Claymore pushed back against Lamia. They both tumbled into the hall. Claymore turned and tried to grapple with the monster, hoping to buy Alabaster a few seconds, but he knew he couldn’t win this fight.
Alabaster’s horrified scream reached him from far away. Then he was drifting, drifting into another world. Death’s cold hand wrapped around Howard Claymore like an icy prison.
There was no ferryman for him, not even a boat. He was dragged through the bone-chilling water of the Styx, pulled toward whatever punishment awaited him for the life that he had led.
He could try to claim he was a man of pure motives, trying to preach sense to the world, but even he knew that wasn’t the truth. He had dismissed the mere idea of gods and been dismissive of anyone who worshipped one. They all had been just a laugh to him—but if he’d learned anything from the last six hours, it was that these gods didn’t have a sense of humor.
Pity was, he thought to himself as he was pulled through the icy current, if Alabaster wasn’t an enemy of the gods, Claymore might have been received as a hero for saving the boy’s life.