Anton Strout - Author

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ISBN 9781101625705 | 304 pages | 24 Sep 2013 | Ace | 18 - AND UP
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Alexandra Belarus was an artist stuck working in her New York family’s business…until she discovered her true legacy—a deep and ancient magic. Lexi became the last practicing Spellmason, with the power to breathe life into stone. And as her powers awoke, so did her family’s most faithful protector: a gargoyle named Stanis. But when a centuries-old evil threatened her family and her city, Stanis sacrificed himself to save everything Lexi held dear.
With Stanis gone, Lexi’s efforts to master Spellmasonry—even with the help of her dedicated friends—are faltering. Hidden forces both watch her and threaten her, and she finds herself suddenly under the mysterious wing of a secret religious society determined to keep magic hidden from the world.
But the question of Stanis’s fate haunts her—and as the storm around her grows, so does the fear that she won’t be able to save him in her turn.



“For the record, I hate running,” Marshall Blackmoore huffed, his shaggy brown mop of hair stuck to his forehead with sweat, covering part of his eyes. “Especially after creepy monsters.”

Despite his tall, skinny Ichabod physique, my friend wheezed away like he was a three–hundred–pound fat–camp escapee chasing down an ice–cream truck. “There’s a reason I opened a game store, you know. Lots . . . more . . . sitting.”

I didn’t have the energy to think about whatever my dear, nerdy friend was saying about Roll for Initiative. For me, running actually helped me concentrate, and in my newfound arcane life, focus was indeed a handy skill to have. Like now.

“I actually enjoy this,” I said. “The running part.”

“How do you feel about the chasing a rampaging golem part of it?” my other friend Aurora Torres called over her shoulder as she ran by. Her short blue hair and black horn–rimmed glasses flew past me, her dancer’s legs pumping hard as she easily pulled much farther ahead of Marshall and me. As she took the lead, her lean frame disappeared into the distance, the bounce of an artist’s tube strapped across her back almost comical.

“Not so crazy about the rampaging,” I said. “Especially given that it’s my fault.”

“Don’t beat yourself up too bad,” she called back. “Occupational hazard of being the one and only existing Spellmason.”

Up ahead in the distance, the lumbering but still–speedy creature I had empowered continued on through the night, thankfully charging down one of the quieter side avenues near Manhattan’s South Street Seaport.

The oversized human shape—comprised entirely of animated red bricks—moved gracelessly, crunching into anything and everything in its path: parked cars, tree trunks, low–hanging branches, hydrants—all of them coming away worse from their encounter.

“Don’t beat yourself up,” Marshall repeated, pointing at it. “You’ve got that thing to beat you up.”

“Just be glad I chose to run these experiments late at night,” I said. “We only have to deal with property damage and not, you know . . .”

“People damage . . . ?” Rory finished.

I nodded. “Exactly.”

Rory turned back forward, pointing to a dark area up ahead that lay between two streetlamps. “It’s heading for that alley!” she called out.

Not wanting to lose sight of it, I pushed myself harder, both physically and mentally. I pressed the power of my will out to it, fighting to regain the control I had lost over its form. I pulled at its spirit, but there was a resistance in the animated creature.

“No luck,” I said, and the connection snapped shut as the brick monster vanished down the alley.

“I’ll try to head it off,” Rory called back, and sprinted farther off down the block, one hand already unscrewing the top of the art tube strapped across her back. By the time she had gone half the block, Rory had pulled two wooden shaft pieces free from it, coupling them together before affixing a third, longer, bladed piece to it.

“Not the most subtle weapon to cart around the city,” I called back to Marshall, who I was steadily outpacing now.

“Says the woman who had a magical gargoyle as her weapon of choice,” he said. “At least Rory can break her glaive guisarme down. Besides, there’s no talking Ms. Torres out of something once she gets it in her head. She loves that thing.”

“She does make it dance,” I admitted.

“Surprising for a dancer!” Marshall added with a wheeze.

I didn’t respond. The sheer act of talking winded me, so I shut my mouth as I headed into the alleyway after the creature. The darkness was worse here, and given the overturned cans and dented Dumpsters along the way, I slowed as I negotiated a path through it all.

Rory came into the alley farther up ahead of me from the side somewhere, and true to her calling in life, danced her way deftly after the creature, leaving me to feel all the more clumsy an oaf for slamming into everything as I went.

Cans rolled, and empty delivery pallets flew back and forth in the wake of the lumbering creature as it made its destructive way, but Rory managed to dodge them all with her natural grace and speed. Not wanting to leave my best friend since childhood to face the golem all alone, I secretly wished I had half her agility. When wishing didn’t make me any more graceful—evidenced by the sudden sound of tearing fabric from my jeans as a stray pallet nail caught on them—I instead opted for focusing more on my immediate environment. I needed to pay attention. I wasn’t going to be any use if I bled out right here.

Being more cautious slowed me, but it was a small comfort that I was still farther ahead than Marshall, whose every bump and crash behind me fell farther and farther away as I pushed myself harder down the alley.

“You doing okay back there, Marsh?” I asked, keeping my eyes glued to my path.

“Don’t worry about me,” he said. “Again, my bad for living the gamer’s life. Just keep on them!”

I chanced a glance up. The alley turned left farther ahead, and Rory and the creature were no longer in sight. I pushed on, rounding the corner in time to catch the two of them roughly thirty feet straight ahead, where the alley dead–ended.

Trapped, the creature reached out to the brick wall in front of it, as if sensing that the wall was comprised of the same material it was made from. When it found no means of escape, though, it spun, its tall figure, menacing Rory as I arrived by her side.

Despite the clear danger and its towering size, Rory didn’t back down from it, extending her pole arm in front of her.

“Can you control it?” she asked. “You know, like you did for about, oh, twenty seconds back in Gramercy?”

“Shut it,” I spat out. “You know that Hendrix didn’t learn guitar in a day.”

“True,” Rory said, “but then again, a guitar doesn’t threaten to kill you or crush you in quite the same way an animated pile of bricks does.”

“Trying to concentrate here,” I said, pressing my mind against the resistance of the creature once more. I latched onto it, but whatever was in there wasn’t giving up control in any hurry.

Marshall arrived beside us, the sounds coming from him making me wonder if he was having an asthma attack. Between that thought and Rory’s previous comments, my concentration was lost, and I snapped. “Yes, but at least Hendrix could go into a guitar shop and take lessons. He could go to guitar school. Hogwarts doesn’t exist.”

“Hey,” she said, raking her blade in sparks against the brick golem. “We used to wish there to be magic in the world, and we got it.”

“I’m not asking for much,” I said. “Just some real instruction. A Dumbledore, a Snape . . . hell, I’d even take a Trelawney right about now.”

The creature knocked Rory’s blade away, swinging its rough, thick hands.

“Don’t say that,” Rory said, backing up a little, scrunching up her face. “Don’t ever say that. Trelawney, really? ”

I shrugged. “In a pinch, sure. Not ideal, but—”

The air of the alley erupted into a flurry of tiny, leathery wings like those of a bat, but unlike a bat, these things had arms and legs to go with their sharp, tiny teeth.

“Stone biters,” Marshall shouted.

“Not these guys again,” Rory said, taking her pole arm and waving it about us in an attempt to drive the tiny creatures off.

Marshall, who smartly stood well out of harm’s way from the golem, flipped open his blank book to a page where the winged creatures were already sketched out. “Your great–great–grandfather had them listed, and this appearance confirms it—they’re drawn to magic in stone, not just stone itself.” He made a quick note in his book.

As Rory continued waving her pole arm around, most of the swarm dispersed, save one especially flittery, shrieky one that dashed through the air in a tight circle around the golem. The tower of bricks seemed to be just as annoyed with our winged friend as we were. With the spirit in it distracted, my will found an opening into my creation’s body, flooding forward into the brick as whatever resistant spirit within vacated it.

“I have it!” I shouted, unable to contain my glee. Rory saved that kind of reaction for finding the sleekest, sexiest pair of shoes, and for Marshall, it was a decadent dessert, but my delight came from stopping brick monstrosities.

“Thankfully, the spirit realm hates whatever these winged things are as much as we do,” I said.

The words were barely out of my mouth when Rory dashed forward and threw herself into the air toward the flying creature.

“Wait!” Marshall called out, but it was too late.

Rory’s pole arm was already coming down fast on it, the tip of the blade driving straight through the center of its chest, pinning its tiny form to the wall of the alley. It let out a tiny screech that drove into the center of my brain, but in seconds, it was all over for the little beastie. Rory pulled her blade free from the wall, scraping the remains of the creature off the tip of her pole arm with the toe of one of her combat boots.

Marshall walked over to her, clutching his book against the pocket of his X–Men–logoed jacket. “Thanks,” he said, annoyed, rolling the creature onto its back with his own shoe, his face losing what little color it had.

“Sorry,” she said with a complete lack of sincerity, and walked back over to where I stood.

He flipped open the sketchbook once more and began drawing. “I wanted to get this creature right,” he said. “And now—thanks to Miss Stabby here—I’ll have to work around the damage she did to it.”

“A simple ’thank–you’ would suffice,” Rory fired back. “Would you prefer it gouged one of our eyes out so you could get its good side? Why are you even doing this anyway? Half this stuff is already cataloged in Alexandra’s great–great–grandfather’s secret library.”

Warm thoughts of the comfy couches on my favorite floor of the Belarus Building filled my head for a moment, until my arguing friends snapped me back into the moment.

Marshall looked up from the sketch, shooting his roommate a look. “A Monster Manual of my own will come in handy,” he said, defensive. “Trust me.”

“Easy, everyone,” I said, speaking up, trying to hold the brick man in my sway.

Though Marshall and Rory excelled at fighting like a married couple, I didn’t need them breaking the link I had just reestablished with my animated creation, but given the sudden, wobbly nature I felt radiating out from the brick man before me, I was already too late.

“Shit!” I said, fighting to hold it together. I rushed my will forward hard into it, which only made it more unstable at this point, and given the distraction, I could do little more than watch my creation fall apart brick by brick until there was nothing left but an inert pile of red bricks at my feet. “Dammit!”

“Sorry,” Marshall offered. “But that’s one way of stopping it before it could rampage any further.” He flipped to the front of his book, making a note. “That’s experiment 247. No bueno.” After that, he flipped back through his book and started to sketch the dead creature.

Rory disassembled the pieces of her pole arm, wiping the blade down last, and when she was done, I helped her slide the pieces back into the art tube on her back.

“That went really well, Lexi,” she said, turning to face me.

Given the results of our evening, I was poised to tell her to stop being a jerk, but there was actual sincerity in her eyes. “How can you be saying that? Look at it!”

Rory adjusted her glasses and pushed her blue bangs off her forehead as she caught her breath. “First of all, it was a full–human–sized creature,” she said. “You’ve never done anything that big before.”

“That’s what she said . . . ?” Marshall snickered while still drawing away.

“Shut it,” Rory said. “I’m trying to be constructive here.”

I kicked one of the bricks, watching it topple off the pile. “I appreciate it,” I said, “but it was still a failure.”

“Also,” Rory continued, not giving up, “it certainly stayed animated longer than anything else you’ve done.” She pulled out her cell phone and checked the time. “It was nearly a half hour. Even if it wasn’t in your control all that time, it still held together. Nothing’s lasted that long except Bricksley.”

I was ready to argue, but the mention of my little walking brick and his smiling drawn–on face brought a smile to my own face instead. “No fair invoking the cute,” I said. “I only hope he’s not tearing apart anything back in the art studio. We ran off in a hurry.”

“Whatever,” she said, slapping me on the shoulder, squeezing. “I’m chalking this up as a success.”

“You do that,” I conceded. “Still, none of my creations come even close to equaling—” In my frustration, I found I couldn’t even say his name.

“Stanis,” she said, sliding her arm fully over my shoulder. “I know. We’ll get there. Slow and steady wins the race and all.”

“You still haven’t heard from him?” Marshall called over to us, his head still down in his notes.

Rory glared at him. “Marsh! Don’t ask that.”

He glanced up from his book, his eyes full of hurt. “What? I’m sorry I’m not up on all the details of your lives. I’ve got my own life. I’ve got the store, my games . . .” He pointed at the creature on the ground with his pen. “You know, this gross little thing to draw . . .”

“Just because Lexi hasn’t heard from him in six months doesn’t mean anything,” Rory said as if I needed defending.

And maybe I did.

The last half year rushed to the front of my mind, overwhelming me. Life had erupted into chaos upon learning my great–great–grandfather Alexander Belarus had not just been an unparalleled architect and sculptor but also a practitioner of Spellmasonry—the arcane art of manipulating stonework to one’s will.

That in itself would have been cool, except for the part where the servants of an ancient stone lord named Kejetan Ruthenia were intent on trying to kill us to reclaim said mystical secrets. If Alexander Belarus hadn’t set the gargoyle Stanis to secretly watch over our family centuries ago, I probably would have been dead by now.

No, I’d definitely be dead by now.

We had been losing badly when they invaded our family home on Gramercy Park. Our saving grace had been when Stanis discovered he had been killed and transformed by his father Kejetan centuries ago. Only by agreeing to go with the mad stone lord was he able to save the rest of us, leaving me with a parting message that we should prepare ourselves.

“It’s okay,” I said, giving her my best Bambi eyes. “I’m a big girl now. I can handle it.” I turned to look at him. “No, Marsh, I haven’t seen Stanis. The last you saw of him is the last time we all saw him. He did it to buy us time, and he has, all right? ”

Marshall closed his notebook and crossed over to us. “So . . . where is he then? ”

I shrugged. “I don’t know,” I said, feeling the hollowness I had been trying to avoid within myself—the hollowness I had tried to fill with studying all I could in my great–great–grandfather’s library on the subject of the Spellmasons. Not that I had come away with any such mastery of the subject. “Stanis told us to prepare. So that’s what I’m doing.”

The blaze of approaching sirens grew louder with each passing second, and Marshall snapped his book shut. “We need to go,” he said. “Now.”

“We’ve done pretty good of steering clear of the law so far,” Rory said.

“Getting found out isn’t going to help us,” I said. “Marshall’s right. We need to go. We need to prepare, more than just for evading the police.”

I turned and headed back up the dead–end alley, an uneasy tension falling among the three of us. If I was being honest with myself, it had been there for months, really.

Prepare, Stanis had said. The implied threat behind Stanis’s single word, the idea of a coming war for those arcane secrets between Kejetan Ruthenia—Kejetan the Accursed and us . . . it seemed a little less likely every day, given the way they had all but disappeared after getting Stanis back from us. The fact that my older brother Devon had given up his humanity all for the promise of eternal life only added to that bitter–to–swallow pill.

Add to that month after month of frustration with slowly learning the arcane familial legacy of Spellmasonry, and the fire had died down a little, but the questions that had haunted me for months were still there.

Where was Stanis? Was he alive? Dead? And why hadn’t we heard from him, either in friendship or on behalf of Kejetan?

I couldn’t help but hold him responsible for the awkwardness among me and my friends at that moment, but what I really hated him for just then was leaving me.



There were times over the centuries when I missed the flesh of my once–human form, and as the pain of a metal spike drove through the tip of one of my wings, I experienced such a moment. Human flesh would have yielded with little resistance, but the arcane stonework of my wings was made from a higher quality of material.

Yes, there would have been pain, but none like that of my wings being torn through.

Still, feeling something was perhaps better than the nothing of the last few months, a time shrouded by total darkness—that of the mind and of the body with only a small circle of light shining down on me from somewhere above.

The weight of my heavy stone frame slammed down onto the steel of the ship’s hull, ringing out with a dull echoing thud. I lay there, unwilling— unable—to move, my only movement that of my claws digging into the cool metal beneath me. The hum of the ship’s mechanisms ran through my prone body, a different rhythm than that of the sway of waves against the freighter as it sailed on.

“Will the damage be permanent?” a deep and empty voice asked, that of my father.

I tilted my head to one side, seeking him out. Kejetan Ruthenia’s inhuman form was barely perceptible in the darkness of the cargo hold, a distant, malformed shadow barely visible beyond the small circle of light that surrounded me.

He was not the human I had known centuries ago, no. This monstrosity bore more of a resemblance to a jagged pile of rocks, its crags and lumps held together in a mockery of the human form. For every carved bit of grotesque beauty that had gone into my maker’s work, Kejetan’s own arcane attempts had created an equally opposite abomination.

“Will the damage be permanent?” Kejetan asked again, his voice growling with impatience this time, waiting for an answer . . . but not from me.

“Nothing I can’t fix,” another voice replied from the darkness off to my right. The one who had driven the spike through my right wing, the one just outside my line of sight. I did not think I knew the voice, fairly certain I had not heard it before. By the tone and the fleeting glimpse I had of the figure off in the shadows, I knew him to be human, but that was all I had gathered. “You wanted answers . . . this should speed up the process considerably.”

“Are you certain?” Kejetan asked.

“Honestly?” A short laugh barked out of the stranger. “I’m not sure. I’ve never done this to one of his kind. I’m not even sure if there is another of his kind.”

“We are of his kind,” my father snapped.

The stranger laughed again. “Have you looked in a mirror lately?” he asked. “No offense, but I wouldn’t exactly call you cut from the same cloth . . . I mean, stone.”

“You need not remind me,” my father said, the tone of his voice becoming more measured, darker. “Of this I am well aware.” His shadowy form turned away, looking across the dark cargo hold. “Devon!”

Another of the stone men walked over and stepped into my circle of light. This creature I recognized, its having only months ago still been human. This abomination in particular had once been the human Devon Belarus.

Kejetan joined him in front of me, the two stone men staring down at my prone form. “My son Stanis has claimed for months that the knowledge I seek has been stored—built—into him. Yet for months, we have not been able to extract it from him. You were once of the family who made him. Is what Stanis says true? Does he possess the secrets of the Spellmasons?”

Devon shifted from one jagged stone leg to the other as if uncomfortable with the question. If anyone here had a claim to discomfort, it was surely me, which made a grim laughter rise to my lips before I shut it down.

“You’re asking the wrong Belarus for that,” Devon said. “You want my sister, Alexandra.”

At the mention of her name, a surge ran through my body, and I pushed myself up to the full extension of my arms until I could look first at him, then my father at the edge of the circle of light. “No!” I shouted, rising to my knees. “You promised to stay away from the Belarus family, and I told you I would give you the secrets that I hold. That was our pact, Father.”

Kejetan stepped toward me. The rough stone of his hand grabbed at my face, jerking my head back until I was looking into the dark hollows where his eyes should be.

“Someone here has not lived up to his part of his bargain,” he said. “So perhaps it is time we revisit your dear Alexandra.”

Rage filled me at the very thought of it, but, weakened as I was, I could do nothing but stare back at him. “You know what will happen if you do,” I said. “The information you seek has been locked away inside me, and if you break our pact, you will lose all of it. The rules set upon me by my maker will once fill me, forcing me to fight you, unrelenting, until I am torn apart. You will have lost both your son and the secrets of the Spellmasons.”

I kept my eyes fixed on him, not daring to break contact or even hint that I was not exactly telling him the truth. It was, if I recalled Alexandra’s word for it correctly, bluffing.

Kejetan stared at me a moment longer before letting go of my face. “Then we are at an impasse,” my father said. He turned to the stranger. “Can nothing be done about this?”

The stranger, twirling a second spike just barely on the edge of my sight, stopped and sighed. “Possibly,” he said, “but it will take time . . . and money. This one will cost a good chunk. You sure you can afford it?”

Kejetan stepped toward the figure, towering over him. “I did not cross oceans to bandy around about money or riches,” he said with a bit of menace to it. “Just see to it.”

“I’ll need to do some research first,” the stranger said.

My father moved away from him, taking a position directly in front of me again. “Don’t you think you should finish stringing my gargoyle son up first? ” Kejetan asked.

The word came off his jagged lips in a mix of disgust but also resentment. He wanted my form. He would kill for this form.

The stranger moved around behind me and pulled my left wing away from my body, stretching the stoneflesh of it out to its full extension. He raised the spike high overhead. “I said I need to research first,” he repeated, but raised the spike high overhead anyway. “But still, I suppose it can’t hurt to start breaking down this golem’s will . . .”

As the spike pierced my other wing, the pain was far worse this time. All sensation had returned to me tenfold since Alexandra had restored my soul, and pain was no exception.

Was this what humans felt all the time? Is this what I had felt centuries ago when my father had accidentally taken my human life away from me? So white–hot in my thoughts was the pain this time that all other thoughts fell from my mind, and I once more collapsed to the floor.

“Not so fast, big fellah,” the stranger whispered from behind, and he bent over me, affixing chains to both spikes. “You’re not getting a reprieve just yet.” The shadowy figured walked away toward the left of the cargo hold, the sound of chains’ pulling through fixtures high above us filling the hold. The slack on the lines attached to me pulled tight, my wings spreading out farther apart from each other with every passing second. When they could stretch no more, my body rose off the floor until I hung with the tips of my clawed feet just barely touching the steel below me.

The stranger stopped, but the resulting pain coursing through my stretched wings and body did not.

My father moved forward to me. “Will you reveal the secrets of the Spellmasons now?”

Dazed, I found it impossible to respond, my head hanging slack between my shoulder blades. I hung there for how long I knew not before Kejetan finally spoke again.

“Very well,” he said, turning away from to the other stone man. “What say you, Devon?”

“Sometimes you’ve got to blow up a safe to get to what’s inside,” he said.

Kejetan looked back at me, then to the human stranger off in the shadows. “ Break his will.

“It’s your dime,” the stranger said, and there followed the sounds of his working with a tray of bottles, beakers, and vials I knew lay off on a table against the wall of the cargo hold.

“Now get ready, freak show,” he said. “This is going to hurt me as . . . well, actually this shouldn’t hurt me one bit. You will be bent into servitude.”

I could not imagine anything feeling worse than the pain I was feeling across my shoulders and extended wings, but as a shaft of bright, hot light appeared in front of me, I was proven wrong. Somewhere in front of me, a small, focused beam shot into my shoulder, the low hum of electricity thrumming behind it.

“Ultraviolet,” I heard the man say although I knew not what the word meant until a second later.


The change in my body hit me, but only in the one spot and the area immediately surrounding it as the malleable surface of my stoneflesh turned to solid stone. My body seized up, the grinding of rock rising from the spot, and I could not help but let out a roar.

Can I endure? Can I take this pain, unbearable though it is?

Yes, if it means keeping the Belarus family safe, if it keeps Alexandra safe. Like the initial spike, there was a perverse pleasure in the pain. After centuries of being deprived of any sort of emotion or sensation, part of me welcomed feeling something. And if I was being honest with myself, something felt better than the nothing after I forced Alexandra to break her bond with me, ensuring her own safety.

I could only hope she had been using these months wisely. My father could not be held by my bluff or mutual impasse forever.

And, there was also the fear that, quite possibly, I would eventually break.

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