“That’s a shame,” she said, her voice barely a whisper. “It makes my job that much harder.”

Claymore slammed down the receiver.

What was that woman’s problem? She had started the conversation by practically saying, “I’ve been stalking you,” and then tried to convert him. So much for her being a nice grandmother.

The phone rang again—Lamia’s ID—but Claymore had absolutely no intention of picking it up. He unplugged his phone, and that was the end of that.

Tomorrow, perhaps, he’d file a police report. Clearly Ms. Lamia was deranged. Why on earth would she want that boy’s address? What did Lamia want with him?

Claymore shivered. He felt a strange urge to warn the child. But no, this wasn’t his problem. He would just let the psychos thin themselves out, if that’s what they wished. He wasn’t going to step into the crossfire.

Especially not tonight. Tonight, he needed to sleep.

Claymore knew that curiosity and excitement could twist a person’s dreams. But that didn’t explain this one.

He found himself in a vast room, old and dusty. It looked like a church that hadn’t been cleaned in a century. There was no light except for a soft green shimmer at the far end of the room. The source of the light was obscured by a boy standing in the aisle directly in front of him. Though Claymore couldn’t see clearly, he was sure it was the same kid from the auditorium. What was he doing in Claymore’s dream?

Claymore was what people called a lucid dreamer, someone who usually knows when they’re dreaming and can wake up at will. He could have woken himself now if he’d wanted to, but he decided not to just yet. He was curious.

“She’s found me again,” the boy said. He wasn’t addressing Claymore. His back was turned, and he seemed to be talking to the green light. “I don’t know if I can fight her off this time. She’s closing in on my scent.”

For a moment there was no answer. Then, finally, a woman spoke from the front of the room. Her tone was stoic and without humor, and something about it sent a shiver up Claymore’s spine.

“You know I cannot help you, my child,” she said. “She is my daughter. I can’t raise my hand against either of you.”

The boy tensed like he was ready to argue, but he stopped himself. “I—I understand, Mother.”

“Alabaster, you know I love you,” the woman said. “But this is a battle you brought upon yourself. You accepted Kronos’s blessing. You fought with his armies in my name. You can’t simply turn to your enemies now and ask for forgiveness. They will never help you. I have bargained to keep you safe thus far, but I cannot interfere in your fight with her.”

Claymore frowned. The name Kronos referred to the Titan lord of Greek mythology, son of the earth and the heavens, but the rest made no sense. Claymore had hoped to gain some insight from this dream, but now it seemed like garbage—more mythology and legends. It was nothing but useless fiction.

The boy, Alabaster, stepped toward the green light. “Kronos wasn’t supposed to lose! You said the odds of winning were in the Titans’ favor! You told me Camp Half-Blood would be destroyed!”

When the boy moved, Claymore could finally see the woman that he was talking to. She knelt at the end of the aisle, her face raised as if in prayer to a dirty stained glass window above the altar. She was dressed in white robes covered with ornate silver designs, like runes or alchemy symbols. Her dark hair barely came down to her shoulders.

Despite the grime and dust she was kneeling in, the woman looked spotless. In fact she was the source of the light. The green shimmer surrounded her like an aura.

She spoke without looking at the boy. “Alabaster, I simply told you the most likely outcome. I didn’t promise you that it would occur. I only wanted you to see the options, so you would be prepared for what might lie ahead.”

“All right,” Claymore finally spoke up. “I’ve had enough. This ridiculous story ends now!”

He expected to snap back awake. But for some reason he didn’t.

The boy wheeled around and examined him with amazement. “ You?” He turned back to the kneeling woman. “Why is he here? Mortals aren’t allowed to set foot in the house of a god!”

“He’s here because I invited him in,” the woman said. “You asked for his help, didn’t you? I had hoped he would be more willing if he understood your—”

“Enough!” Claymore yelled. “This is absurd! This isn’t reality! This is merely a dream, and as its creator, I demand to wake up!”

The woman still didn’t look at him, but her voice sounded amused. “Very well, Dr. Claymore. If that is what you wish, I will make it so.”

Claymore opened his eyes. Sunlight was streaming through his bedroom windows.

Odd…Usually when he chose to end a dream, he woke up immediately, during the dead of night. Why was it morning?

Well, if anything, that dream made the boy from yesterday seem a whole lot less intimidating. Kronos’s blessing? The house of a god? Alabaster had sounded more like a member of a role-playing group than a crazed psycho. Titans? Claymore fought back a laugh. What was he, five?

Claymore felt relieved and refreshed. It was time to start his morning routine.

He slipped out of his bedclothes, showered, and put on his regular attire—the same style of clothes he’d worn to his speech the night before: slacks, dress shirt, polished brown loafers. Claymore did not believe in dressing down.

He slipped on his tweed jacket and started to gather his belongings.

Laptop: check. Wallet: check. Keys: check.

Then he hesitated. There was one more thing he needed. It was a completely unnecessary precaution, but it would give him peace of mind. He opened his desk drawer, picked his smallest handgun—a nine-millimeter—and slipped it into his jacket pocket.

Last night the boy Alabaster had shaken him to his foundation. So much so that Claymore had gone to bed without doing any writing, which was not something he could afford right now, with his next deadline right around the corner. He could not allow any crazed fans to affect his mood and output. If that meant he had to carry a security blanket, then so be it.

Black’s Coffee. The name was a pun of the worst kind, but still Claymore returned day after day. After all, it was the best coffee place in Keeseville. Then again, it was the only coffee place in Keeseville.…

He’d gotten to know the owner quite well. As soon as he stepped inside, Burly Black was the first one to greet him with “Howard! How you doing? The usual?”

Burly was…well, burly. His beefy face, massive tattooed arms, and permanent scowl would have gained him entry into any biker gang. His Kiss the Cook apron was the only thing that made him look like he was supposed to be behind the counter.

“Morning,” Claymore replied, taking a seat at the counter and pulling out his laptop. “Yes, the usual is good.”

He was on chapter forty-six at this point, which made his work easier. No more hand-holding the readers. If they hadn’t gotten the point by now, they never would.

Coffee and a blueberry pastry appeared in front of him, but Claymore hardly noticed them. He was in his own world, fingers sprawling out on the keyboard, words and thoughts coming together in a seemingly incomprehensible pattern, but Claymore knew it was genius.

The coffee was slowly drained. The pastry was reduced to a few crumbs. Other customers came and went, but none of them fazed Claymore. Nothing mattered except his work. This was what he lived for.

But then his private world shattered when a woman sat down next to him.

“Claymore, what a surprise! I didn’t expect to see you here!”

White-hot hatred welled up inside him. He hit control-S and closed his laptop. “Ms. Lamia, if I were not a more civilized man, I’d pull that seat out from under you.”

She pouted, giving him puppy eyes, which wasn’t convincing in a woman her age. “That’s not very nice, Mr. Claymore. I’m just saying hello.”

He glared at her. “It’s Doctor Claymore.”

“I’m sorry,” she said halfheartedly. “I always forget…I’m not very good with names, you see.”

“The only thing I want from you is for you to leave my sight,” he said. “I refuse to be converted to whatever cult you belong to.”

“I just want to talk,” she insisted. “It’s not about gods. It’s about the boy, Alabaster.”

He eyed her suspiciously. How did she know the boy’s name? Claymore hadn’t mentioned it in their phone conversation last night.

Ms. Lamia smiled. “I’ve been looking for Alabaster for some time now. I’m his sister.”

Claymore laughed. “Can’t you make up a better lie than that? You’re older than the boy’s father!”

“Well, looks can be deceiving.” Her eyes seemed unnaturally bright, luminous green, like the light in Claymore’s dream. “The boy has concealed himself well,” she continued. “I must admit he’s gotten better at his magia occultandi. I hoped your speech would draw him into the open, and it did. But before I could grab him, he managed to escape. Give me his address, and I’ll leave you in peace.”

Claymore tried to stay calm. She was just a crazy old woman, rambling nonsense. Although magia occultandi…Claymore knew his Latin. That meant enchantment of hiding. Who in the world was this woman, and why did she want the boy? It was clear that she meant Alabaster harm.

As Claymore stared at her, he realized something else…Ms. Lamia wasn’t blinking. Had he ever seen her blink?

“You know what? I’m sick and tired of this.” Claymore’s voice trembled in spite of him. “Black, have you been listening?”

He looked across the counter at Burly. For some reason, Burly didn’t respond. He just kept polishing coffee mugs.

“Oh, he can’t hear you.” Lamia’s voice dropped to that same raspy whisper he’d heard last night on the phone. “We can control the Mist at will. He has no idea that I’m even here.”

“Mist?” Claymore asked. “What on earth are you talking about? You must truly be insane!”

He stood, instinctively backing away, putting his hand on his coat pocket. “Burly, please kick this woman out before she completely spoils my morning!”

Burly still didn’t respond. The big man stared right through Claymore as if he wasn’t there.

Lamia gave him a cocky smile. “You know, Mr. Claymore, I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a mortal this arrogant before. Perhaps you need a demonstration.”

“Don’t you understand, Ms. Lamia? I don’t have time for this! I will take my leave now, and as for…”

He didn’t have time to finish. Lamia stood and her form began to shimmer. Her eyes were the first to change. Her irises expanded, glowing dark green. Her pupils narrowed into serpentine slits. She extended a hand and immediately her fingers shriveled and hardened, her nails turning into lizardlike claws.

“I can kill you right now, Mr. Claymore,” she whispered.