to Founder’s Hall. Military uniform.”

“No rest for the weary.”

“Not today,” said Nolan, his blue eyes tracking the gulls beyond the cliffs. “Anyway, I’ve done my duty and you’d better get going. I don’t know who’s on that ship or what they want, but I feel better knowing we’ve got our Hound.”

Within the hour, Max climbed the shallow flight of stairs that led to Founder’s Hall. Situated in a new wing of the Manse, Founder’s Hall served as an audience chamber when the Director’s offices would not suffice. It was the largest of many additions made to the Manse as Rowan Academy evolved from a secret school of magic into an independent nation.

Despite all of these changes, Rowan’s seal remained the same. It was engraved upon the doors: a sun, star, and moon set above a flowering rowan tree. Stopping to gaze at it, he glimpsed his reflection in the sun’s polished silver. Hot water might have removed the dirt, but it could not wash away months of hard travel. Max’s wavy black hair now fell almost to his shoulders and framed a face that could no longer be called boyish. He still resembled his mother; they shared the same dark eyes and high cheekbones that had won him many an admirer. But as Max grew to manhood, the blood of his father told.

And that father was not a mortal man; he was Lugh the Long-Handed, an Irish sun deity who had been king of the Tuatha De Danaan. Like other heroes before him, Max straddled the boundary between mortal and immortal. Old Magic coursed in his veins—vast primal energies from ancient days when the world was shaped. Among his kin, Max could name gods, giants, and heroes—not only Lugh, but also Balor of the Evil Eye, and Cuchulain, whom Max resembled.

To a mortal, the Old Magic’s gifts were great, but they were also dangerous. In battle, the same monstrous forces that destroyed Max’s enemies also threatened to consume him. Like Cuchulain, Max became something else entirely … wild, indomitable, and terrifying.

Rowan’s recruiters had known right away that Max was exceptional, but none foresaw how rapidly his abilities would develop. During his first year at Rowan, Max shattered records that had stood for centuries. At thirteen, his skills were such that only William Cooper, Rowan’s top Agent, would train with him. That very year, the Red Branch had inducted Max into their elite ranks while his peers were still studying basic combat. But no others in the Red Branch had traveled to the Sidh or mastered Scathach’s feats as Max had done. They had not been blooded in Prusias’s Arena or crowned Champion of Blys. And no mortal—Red Branch or otherwise—possessed a weapon like the gae bolga.

The awful blade hung at his hip, lurking in a dark scabbard gilded with wolves and ravens. The gae bolga had not always been a sword. It had been a spear when Cuchulain wielded it, a barbed and grisly weapon that claimed the lives of friends and foes alike. With Cuchulain’s death, the broken spear’s pieces were salvaged and kept in a vault by his comrades in the Red Branch. Many kings and warriors had tried to possess the legendary weapon, but the gae bolga screamed at their touch and would not suffer them to hold it. Centuries passed until one arrived whom the spear deemed worthy.

While Max had successfully claimed the broken artifact, he did not have the skill to mend it. With his friends, he sought the aid of his distant kinsman, the last of the ancient Fomorians. The giant confirmed what Max had feared ever since the weapon had called to him. The gae bolga was a sentient thing, the living relic of a dark and terrible goddess. The Morrigan herself had made the weapon and it was infused with her essence and lust for blood and battle.

With great reluctance and difficulty, the Fomorian reforged the weapon. The gae bolga was now unbreakable, and its gruesome blade could shear through flesh, bone, steel, and spirit with terrifying ease. The demons dreaded it. While most mortal weapons could only cause them pain, the gae bolga could slay even the greatest among them. In battle, the blade keened like a banshee and the wounds it made would never heal. The Fomorian had warned that a warrior could never truly wield such a weapon; it would always wield him. Even Max was frightened of it and kept it sheathed unless in dire need. He had not drawn it since May Day.

Will we need you today, I wonder?

A student came in answer to his knock, a Third Year apprentice, judging from her sky-blue robes. Admitting him inside, she ushered Max past several tapestries and into a large oval hall whose rosewood walls swept toward a high-domed ceiling of wrought iron and colored glass. Seven living rowan trees were spaced evenly about the perimeter, each pair flanking an illuminated case. At the room’s center was a great stone table. Many others had already arrived and stood conversing in quiet clusters. The tension was palpable.

“The Director says you’re to have the Steward’s Chair,” said the apprentice, gesturing toward a high-backed seat at the table’s far end.

“That’s Cooper’s place.”

“No, sir,” she said, consulting her sheet. “He is to take the Fool’s Perch.”

Max raised an eyebrow. As commander of the Red Branch, William Cooper should have had the Steward’s Chair and sat at the Director’s right hand. It was a place of honor, signifying that its occupant was the leader’s most trusted and capable servant—one who might rule in his or her stead. Conversely, the Fool’s Perch was the seat positioned nearest visitors, and its title stemmed from a time when negotiations might well turn bloody. Depending on its occupant, the Fool’s Perch was viewed with dread or black humor, but rarely indifference.

Such names were once echoes from a distant past, but Rowan’s traditions were no longer consigned to deep vaults or special ceremonies; they had been dusted off and woven into everyday life. Student apprentices now dressed in the ancient manner, donning hooded robes whose colors ranged from First-Year brown to Sixth-Year scarlet. In addition to their robes, all students wore magechains, silver necklaces whose weight and value increased as they attained various proficiencies. Max glanced at the apprentice’s chain.

“Is Herb Lore to be your specialty?” he asked, noting the prevalence of green stones threaded among an assortment of iron keys and silver runes.

“I want it to be,” the girl whispered, her hand straying to a bright tourmaline. “Miss Boon thinks my talents lie in Firecraft, but can I help it if I like plants?”

Max sympathized but knew red garnets and fire opals were destined to join the girl’s beloved malachite, jade, and tourmaline. No student could long defy Hazel Benson Boon; she was too smart, too patient, and far too stubborn.

He saw the young teacher ahead, standing by an illuminated case and addressing a trio of Promethean Scholars with folded arms and a forward lean. That the nearby case held Macon’s Quill struck Max as no mere coincidence. It was the very prize Miss Boon had won not once but twice during her student days. For all her aloof reserve, he knew she was sinfully proud of the achievement. Catching sight of Max, she ended her conversation with the scholars with a final emphatic point.

“That will do, Siddanhi,” said Miss Boon, coming over. Once the girl departed, the teacher turned and appraised Max with her mismatched eyes. One was brown and the other blue, leading many students to theorize that the unusual feature was related somehow to her gifts in mystics. Miss Boon dismissed this as nonsense, but her eyes did underscore the many contrasts in her personality and appearance. Her hair was stylishly short, but her glasses were old-fashioned. Despite her bookish nature, she’d shared some of Max’s most dangerous adventures. And apparently—in spite of the fact that she was not yet thirty—Hazel Benson Boon had recently joined Rowan’s most venerable faction of Mystics, the Promethean Scholars.

“Congratulations,” said Max, nodding at the telltale robes—inky black with amber trim.

“I suppose I should be pleased,” she mused, considering a sleeve. “In truth, it’s just because Ms. Kraken didn’t want them. As you know, we lost many of the scholars during The Siege, but now they’re rebuilding their ranks and want to include someone on the faculty. When Annika declined, I was the natural choice.” Her brow furrowed and she pursed her lips. “However, I can hardly see the point if they won’t even listen to my counsel.”

“Counsel on what?”

“Bram!” she hissed. “They practically worship him—utterly refuse to acknowledge the dangers.”

“Will he be here?”

“Hopefully not,” she muttered, smoothing her robes. “The Director has asked him to stay away, but who has any idea what he’ll do? He knows we can’t prevent him from attending.”

“I’m sure David will speak to him,” Max reassured her. “He’ll listen to David.”

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