Wait…No, that wasn’t a whisper. It sounded more like a hiss.

Claymore pulled his gun from his jacket and pointed it at Lamia’s head. He didn’t understand what was happening—some sort of hallucinogen in his coffee, perhaps. But he couldn’t let this woman—this creature—get the best of him.

Those talons could be an illusion, but she was still preparing to attack him.

“Do you really think I would act so cocky around a lunatic if I wasn’t prepared to defend myself?” he asked.

She snarled and advanced, raising her claws.

Claymore had never shot anything before, but his instincts took over. He pulled the trigger. Lamia staggered, hissing.

“Life is a frail thing,” he said. “Perhaps you should have read my books! I’m merely acting in self-defense!”

She lunged again. Claymore fired twice more at the woman’s head, and she collapsed to the floor.

He’d expected there to be more blood…but it didn’t matter. “You—you saw that, Burly, didn’t you?” he demanded. “It couldn’t be helped!”

He turned to Black, and then frowned. Burly was still polishing coffee cups.

There was no way for Burly not to have heard the gunshots. How was that possible? How?

And then yet another impossibility happened. The corpse below him started to move.

“I hope you understand now, Mr. Claymore.” Lamia rose and stared at him with her one remaining serpent eye. The entire left side of her face had been blown off, but where blood and bone should have been there was a thick layer of black sand.

It looked more like Claymore had just destroyed part of a sandcastle…and even that part was slowly re-forming.

“By assaulting me with your mortal weapon,” she hissed, “you have declared war on the children of Hecate! And I do not take war lightly!”

This…this wasn’t a dream, drug-induced or otherwise. This was impossible.…How was this real? How was she still alive?

Focus! Claymore told himself. Obviously it is real, since it just happened!

And so, being a logical man, Claymore did the logical thing. He gripped his gun and ran.

The last time he’d seen a boot was years ago, on a rental car he’d illegally parked in Manhattan—but now, of course, on this morning of all mornings, there was one on his car tire. Driving away was no longer an option.

Lamia was getting closer. She shuffled out of the café, her left eye slowing regenerating into an angry stare.

A car drove by and Claymore tried to wave it down, but just as had happened with Black, the driver didn’t seem to register him.

“Don’t you understand?” Lamia hissed. “Your mortal brethren can’t see you! You’re in my world!”

Claymore didn’t argue. He took her explanation for it.

She wobbled toward him, taking her time. She seemed less like a serpent now, and more like a cat toying with its prey.

There was no way he could fight her off, either. He only had five shots left. If three bullets to the head wouldn’t stop her, he doubted that anything short of a hand grenade would.

He had one advantage. He wasn’t an athlete by any stretch of the imagination, but Lamia looked like she would have a hard time getting from her couch to the fridge. He could run and outlast her, no matter what kind of monster she was.

She was about ten feet away now. Claymore gave her a defiant smirk, then turned and sprinted down Main Street. There were only a dozen shops in the center of town, and the street was too open. He’d have to turn on Second Avenue, possibly lose her on one of the side streets. Then he’d return to his home, trip his security, and get in touch with the police. Once he was there, he’d…

“Incantare: Gelu Semita!” Lamia screamed behind him.

That was Latin…an incantation. She was reciting some sort of spell.

He didn’t have time to translate the phrase before the air around him seemed to drop thirty degrees. Even though there wasn’t a cloud in the sky, hail started to fall. He turned, but Lamia was gone.

“Incantation: Path of Frost…” he translated aloud, his breath steaming. “Really? She’s using magic? This is ridiculous!”

Then her voice spoke behind him: “You truly are an intelligent man, Mr. Claymore. Now I understand why my brother seeks you.”

He spun toward her voice, but again she wasn’t there.

Playing more games with him…Fine. He would have to do more than just run away. She wasn’t human, but he would approach her like any adversary. He would have to study his opponent, learn her weaknesses.

And then he would make his escape.

He held his hand out to the hail. “I might not have known this was possible ten minutes ago, but I understand one thing: if this is the extent of your power, it’s no wonder we don’t see more monsters like you!” He grinned. “We must have killed them all!”

She hissed in fury. The hail started coming down harder, filling the air with icy mist. He held out his gun, ready for her to come at him from any angle.

Even though he didn’t care for fiction, he’d spent his career researching ancient beliefs. Incantations were actually a simple concept: if you say something with enough power behind it, it can come true.

This incantation had to be a translocational spell of some sort. Otherwise she wouldn’t have used the word semita. She was making a path for herself, and this ice was the method of travel—obscuring her location and making it hard for Claymore to move or anticipate her next attack.

It was meant to unnerve him, but he forced himself to focus. The ground around him was now covered with ice. He stayed still and listened. He knew she would use the opportunity to strike.

She may have been toying with him, but Claymore had no intention of dying at the hands of an idiot like her, especially if she fell for his taunt so easily.…

Claymore heard the telltale sound of her high heels crunching against the ice. He whirled immediately, sidestepping as she raked her claws at the spot where he’d been standing. Before she could get back her balance, he fired.

Her left kneecap exploded into black dust, and the hail died down. Lamia stumbled, though by the look on her face, the wound didn’t even faze her.

The lower half of her leg had disintegrated, but it was already re-forming.

He hadn’t expected to kill her this time. He watched carefully as she healed, timing her regeneration. With one bullet, he estimated he’d bought himself a minute of time.

“You still don’t understand, mortal!” she said. “Those weapons can’t kill me! They can only slow me down!”

Claymore looked at her and laughed. “If you think I’m trying to kill you, you must really be daft! Obviously, I know you’re immortal now, so why would I even try? No, I can’t kill you. But I have gleaned something interesting from our time together.” He aimed his gun. “You don’t want to kill me right away. Otherwise you wouldn’t have wasted your time pelting me with ice cubes. You want to scare me, hoping I’ll lead you to the boy. He’s a threat to you, isn’t he? All I have to do is find him so he can dispose of you properly. And I know exactly where he is!”

She hissed as her leg reattached, but he shot off her other one.

“If I had enough bullets I could sit here all day!” Claymore jeered. “You’re helpless! Maybe I should just get a vacuum and be done with you!”

He thought that the beast would realize she was at his mercy by now, but for some reason, she still smiled.

The hail had completely died down. What was on the ground had already melted back into nothingness, so he knew whatever spell she was using was over. How did she still have the audacity to smile?

“You really are the most arrogant mortal I’ve ever seen! Fine! If you won’t lead me to the boy, I’ll take pleasure in destroying you!” She flicked a serpentlike tongue. “Incantare: Templum Incendere!”

“Temple of Fire,” Claymore translated.

Probably an offensive spell—he was about to be attacked by fire somehow. He shot her restored leg back into dust and ran.

The spell obviously didn’t work immediately, but he had no intention of finding out what it did. He was about to take advantage of the fact that no other mortal could see him.

He did a full sprint back to Black’s Coffee and pushed through the door.

Black must have been having a really, really good time polishing cups because he was still doing it.

Claymore didn’t care. He reached into Black’s pocket and plucked out the keys for his truck—and Black didn’t even notice.

Just when Claymore thought he was in the clear, he heard Lamia’s rasping voice: “You really do take me for a fool, don’t you?”

She was right behind him…but how was that possible? He’d gauged her regeneration time at around one or two minutes. There was no way she should have been able to follow him so quickly.

He didn’t have time to react. As soon as he turned, she clamped her lizard claws around his neck and his gun clattered to the floor.

“I have walked this world for thousands of years!” she hissed, her deep green eyes staring into him. “You are a mortal! Blind! I was like you, once. I thought I was above the gods. I was the daughter of Hecate, goddess of magic. Zeus himself fell in love with me! I considered myself his equal! But then what did the gods do to me?”

Her hand closed tighter around his throat, and Claymore gasped for air. “Hera slaughtered my children right in front of my eyes! She…! That woman…!”

A tear fell down her scaly face, but Claymore didn’t care in the slightest about this creature’s sob story. He drove his knee into her chest with as much force as he could muster and heard the satisfying crack of her ribs breaking.

Lamia fell backward. Hopefully, her ribs would take time to regenerate. She hunched over, wheezing, as if it were too painful for her to stand.

“I have already invoked the Temple of Fire,” she said. “It is an incantation that destroys your sanctuary—whatever you most place your faith in. I may not be able to make you feel my pain, but I can still take away all that is precious to you! I can take away all of it in the wave of a hand!”

Suddenly the temperature in the café spiked. It felt like a sauna in which the heat kept building.

The tables were the first thing to catch, then the chairs, and then…

Claymore made a mad dash for Black, who was still happily polishing coffee cups.

“Incantare: Stulti Carcer!” Lamia shrieked.

Suddenly Claymore’s legs felt like lead. He tried to force himself to move, but he couldn’t. He was glued in place.

Flames began to creep up Black’s apron. Soon his entire body was lit on fire. The worst part was that he didn’t even notice what was happening to him.

Claymore cried out to him, but it was no use. He had to watch as his only real friend in Keeseville was consumed by flames in front of his eyes.

“Gods can do this!” Lamia cried. “They can erase everything that you hold dear in a second, and so shall I!” She turned to his laptop. “I’ll destroy that, too—your latest work!”