Rivulets of sweat trickled down Inac’s forehead, stinging the corners of eyes closed in deep concentration. Despite the cool, salt-tinged air that blew in the open window, Inac sweltered as the Fire inside him sparked to life. His back ached as he stood hunched over with the Sage observing him, waiting to sense Inac’s Archemagic. The heat gathered in his right hand, then spread from his palm up to his elbow, to his shoulder, past his heart and to his core.

“Good,” Aveadem said. “Keep going. Let the Archefire flow beyond you now.”

Inac swallowed, took a deep breath in. His muscles trembled holding the flames. He had gotten this far before, but never further. After three years of the Sage’s teachings, some progress was overdue.

The Fire suddenly swelled out of his control, as it always did. Inac’s eyes snapped open. A golden glow leaked from his skin and the heat became unbearable, threatening to consume him. Nightmares of burning up haunted Inac’s sleep. The Archefire yearned for escape, but Inac could not safely channel it. If he lost concentration for a moment, it would escape from everywhere at once and Aveadem would be stuck looking for another apprentice. Before it overwhelmed him, Inac let the Fire fizzle out. He let out his breath and hung his head in shame.

Inac couldn’t look at the Sage, but he knew the Sage wasn’t looking at him either. “I am sorry, Father…” Inac said. “The Fire… it felt to me so hot.” He knew to expect the heat, but the way the Sage taught him to handle it made no sense to Inac. He felt like there was a piece missing. Perhaps the piece was himself. He wasn’t meant to be the next Sage.

“You must endure through the pain, Inac!” Aveadem snapped. The Sage rounded on Inac. “If you cannot do this, how will you keep the Fire alive in the Sea Pot should the Era of Dark arrive?” The fire in the Sage’s eyes as he spat the word “Dark” withered his apprentice more effectively than the Tower’s heat ever could. Fighting the influence of Dark magic was the Sage’s most sacred purpose. He sighed. “You know I must train you. I cannot turn away from this duty. But you try my patience, Inac. I wonder if we chose wrong. Perhaps we misread the signs.”

Tears welled in Inac’s eyes as the Sage turned his back to him and made to leave. He opened the door but paused at the threshold and considered for a moment, then walked to shelf on the wall. Most of its assortment of crystals, relics, and other cosmic artifacts just collected dust, but Aveadem retrieved an object that found plenty of use.

Inac’s hackles raised. Anything but that, he thought.

The Sage eyed Inac, who awaited his punishment with nothing approaching the stoic demeanor that befit his rank and duties. Inac shook like the windswept leaves fluttering high above the stable trunk. Aveadem doled out his punishment, mouth curled, narrow eyes looking past his upturned nose at the boy. He reached out, opened his hands, and—

A thick, leather-bound tome entitled Way of the Lake struck the desk like a thunderclap, sending eddies of dust curling in the air.

Inac loosed a drawn-out groan at the sight of the book’s familiar spine.

“That is precisely how I feel,” Aveadem said. He motioned for Inac to sit. “You are to write an essay on the tidal dynamics of the Sea Pot Lake. And mind your grammar this time. You may not be able to control the Fire, but you will learn the nature of our land. Now, I have business with the Elders.”

The cloth on Inac’s feet brushed along the stone as he trudged to the most uncomfortable stool in all the Isles. He already knew the nature of this land like the back of his hand. He saw all of it watching through the window while sitting at this very desk. Another gust of air from the Sea Pot beckoned Inac outside, but the Sage forbid him to leave this room while working on assignments.

“How many pages this time should I write for you?” Inac asked, opening the book. He received no response. The door slammed shut behind the Sage as he left.

Inac sighed and closed the book again, then looked out on a view that never got old. From this vantage — the highest in the whole Sea Pot Basin — Inac saw the thick canopy that sprawled over the island. The entangled jungle’s coverage broke only in the center, marking the location of the island’s eponymous Sea Pot Lake. The only other feature distinct from the lush green landscape was the lightwood giant, a lone tree that jutted above the rest at the Shrine of Fire.

Inac sat on the stool admiring the landscape until his hindquarters grew numb. Admiration gave way to boredom and his mind wandered free. Once Inac’s mind started to wander, his feet weren’t far behind. They soon brought him to the wooden shelf littered with magical artifacts. He reached for a crystal that held the amber glow of latent Archefire, felt its energy emanating from within. As he gazed into the crystalline lattice, the Fire flared and scorched his hand. Inac winced and dropped the crystal to the shelf. Its glow was slow in fading. It rolled into the darkness and lit an object that Inac had never noticed.

A tar black sphere the size of his fist was tucked away in the shadowy corner by the fixture of the shelf. Hidden as it was, Aveadem evidently hadn’t paid this ball any attention in a long, long time. Its surface was traced by dark gray markings that reminded Inac of the veins in the Sage’s neck when he grew particularly incensed.

He grabbed the ball quickly and held it close, surprising himself with his own excitement. It felt as though Inac discovered a secret that even Aveadem didn’t know. Something long forgotten. Something familiar but lost. The object weighed more than Inac expected. He squeezed it lightly and found that it flexed and bowed in his grip. He brought the ball near the window where the Brightdaughter’s sunset light could illuminate it. In the golden glow Inac saw something unexpected. He saw something beneath its surface.

Something with eyes that stared back at him.

Inac gasped and before he knew what was happening a darkness deeper than shadow flowed from his chest, through his hands, and into the fragile egg. All the light in the room faded and the tower’s humid air turned icy cold. Inac shouted and threw his hands up, sending the object soaring in the air. But it was not an egg that left his hands. It was a hatchling, awakened from its slumber.

The hatchling shrieked as it struck the stone ceiling. Though Inac gazed at it with eyes wide open, and light had once more flooded the room, the creature remained difficult to see. It played a trick on the eye, as though it were only a shadow cast by some invisible thing. A blank spot in his sight, like a hole had been torn in the fabric of the world. Inac tried to focus on it, but it left nothing in his vision but the darkness of cloudy midnight.

Midnight, Inac decided, was the perfect name for this creature. His ears picked up the swift beating of tiny wings. His nose tingled with the scent of a storm full of lightning. Inac felt a mysterious kinship toward Midnight as he watched the inky black spot flitting to and fro in the air around his head.

But fear won out over affection. Inac shouted and swiped at the hatchling, trying to bat it down, missing several times until his hand connected and knocked it into the wall. Midnight shrieked once more, shot out the window, and flew toward the Sea Pot Lake.

Inac had a distinct feeling Midnight was upset with him.

The feeling did not last long before panic set in. Inac scurried around the study, tugged back and forth by his reeling mind, unable to decide what to do in the midst of so many worries. Midnight was a creature of darkness. What if it hurt someone? The Sage definitely would find out about this. There was no way he could finish his essay now.

He calmed himself. He had to think. There was still time for his essay; he could return to the study later. But right now, he had to find the creature he had just unleashed on the Sea Pot.

That meant sneaking out of the Sage’s Tower. Inac hurried to the wall-hook that held his satchel and threw the strap over his shoulder. He stuffed Way of the Lake into the bag and dashed for the door. The book would slow him down, but if Aveadem found him missing from the room he could spin a more convincing story if he had it with him. Inac rushed down the spiral stairs of the tower, taking them two or three at a time, growing dizzy as he hastened for the bottom. He leapt off the staircase and landed at ground level, then darted down the hallway without slowing until he neared the end.

Flickering firelight danced on the wall across from Aveadem’s study. Voices escaped the room through the open door. As he padded past the study, Inac listened to the three Elders of the Seafolk arguing with the Sage.
Someone scoffed. “The omens were clear.” Elder Frant's frail voice.

“And yet,” Aveadem said, “the boy is not making progress. Perhaps it is time to discuss—”

“No,” Elder Gwine snapped. “Must we do this again? We have never replaced a Sage’s apprentice. I will not hear of it.”

Replaced? Inac nearly tripped and gave himself away. Aveadem wanted to replace him?

Elder Frant spoke again. “I must agree. The apprentice is blessed at birth by the Mother of Light. The decision is not ours. Do you know of any other child who has been chosen, Elder Kath?”

Elder Kath hesitated before saying, “Only one. But he has not…”

Inac couldn’t listen to this anymore. He was wasting time, and the words were painful to hear. Didn’t the Sage know how hard he worked? Inac knew he could control Archefire if he could make Aveadem’s teachings fall into place. He clenched his fist around the strap of his satchel and pulled until it painfully dug into his shoulder. Inac hated that his mind worked so differently. It would be so much easier if he could just do as Aveadem said, but was it his fault that he couldn’t understand?

No. He would show the Sage his potential, even if it meant burning himself up. But first he needed to capture Midnight. If Aveadem found out and told the Elders his apprentice released such darkness in the Isle, they would conjure a replacement for him from thin air, blessed by the Lightmother or not.

Outside the tower, the Brightdaughter sunk below the walls of the Basin as Inac hurried down toward the Lake. The entire Sea Pot sat below sea level, circled by mountains that kept the waters of the sea from rushing in. Inac had heard many theories about the formation of these mountains, but his favorite was that they were not mountains at all. Rather, the Sea Pot was the shell of a giant beast from some ancient era. It died lying on its back in the sea before the birds had picked its bones clean. From the carcass of the beast life sprung anew, nourished by bountiful waters that flooded in with the rising of the Brightdaughter where the mountain wall was notched.

But the unpredictable tides of the Sibling Suns had not pulled water into the Sea Pot to refill the Lake for some time. Inac ran between the bamboo stilts that propped the village up above the mud to avoid being seen by the Seafolk. Inac chewed his lip. He needed to find Midnight quickly and didn’t see where it had gone after flying toward the Lake. He accepted that he needed help, paused to catch his breath, then climbed a rope ladder dangling from a nearby house.

Inac ran to a man and blurted out, “Can you give to me your help?”

The man’s shock at Inac’s appearance turned to a look of disgust; he hurried away. Inac knew how ridiculous he must have looked trailing a streak of mud that clung to his flailing robes.

“Please! Tell to me you have seen a creature. Flying above the trees. Small and black.”

Several heads turned to him, but most Seafolk kept their distance from the crazy, rambling boy.

“I seen him,” one man said. “Couldn’t get a good look at ‘im, but I seen him all right.”

Inac sprung toward the man, who took a step backward, warding him off and laughing.

“Where?” Inac said.

“Went that way.” The villager pointed a crooked finger. “Toward the Shrine.” He tilted his head, holding Inac in a quizzical regard. “Say now, aren’t you the Sage’s boy?”

Inac spun and took off toward the Shrine of Fire, hoping no one would follow him or already be at the Shrine now the light had failed. He needed not go far before finding signs of Midnight’s passage. Desaturated hues of dying flowers and dessicated ferns lined the ground. Fallen leaves trailed down from moribund trees’ decaying branches. Withered fungus with blackened toadstools nestled into fetid, shrinking mycelium, sinking back into the earth from which they sprouted. Midnight’s path carved a winding trail of death through a jungle overflowing with life, coating all it touched in a glistening frost.

Inac’s stomach sank, and tears formed at the corners of his eyes. How could he hope to fix this? It was no wonder the Sage hated him and fought for a different apprentice. These thoughts and worse swirled in Inac’s mind as he took in the hellish landscape while following Midnight’s trail, until he stumbled into the Shrine of Fire and saw the most beautiful vision he had ever laid eyes upon.

The Shrine emerged into view like a brilliant sun breaking through a storm. The towering lightwood giant stood like a pillar that touched the heavens, its pinnacle lost in the clouds. Gnarled roots spread across a pavilion lined with flaming braziers. Braided ropes bound the tree, twisting around it and climbing into the canopy. From these ropes hung lanterns the Seafolk tended every dawn. The lanterns formed a circle, but both times Inac visited the Shrine in the past he had felt that something was missing. Some crucial centerpiece that would elevate this display from merely charming to perfectly beautiful. Complete.

Now, the missing piece had placed itself into the puzzle.

Midnight perched with wings outspread, radiating darkness within the circle of fire. Blue-black ice spread outward from the creature of Dark like a web of cracks in shattered glass. The ice caught the golden glow and scattered the lantern light, fractured the ring of flames into a glyph upon the tree. The glyph was surely random, but in its pattern Inac found meaning.

Cold, to balance the heat. Archedark tempered Archefire. They were not forces in opposition; they resonated in harmony. Awestruck, Inac pieced this together. Aveadem could not have taught him this. While Dark was forbidden, Aveadem’s understanding of Archemagic would remain incomplete. Relief made Inac weak in the limbs. His mind was different, but it wasn’t a problem. Now he understood.

He put his new knowledge to work.

Both sides of Archemagic rose inside Inac. Midnight must have sensed this power surging, for it leapt from the tree and plunged toward Inac. The palms of Inac’s hands glowed with Archefire, but wisps of Dark trailed from the fingers of his upraised hands.

Midnight cried out and a sphere of darkness erupted from the creature, black as the depths of the lake. Inac reached into this aura—viscous as oil, cold as death—and laid hands upon Midnight before it could attack. The moment he grabbed the creature, Inac felt the life draining from his bones and knew he could not hold on much longer. He had no choice. The creature would die.

He would profane this Shrine of Fire with an act of Dark.

Heat flowed down Inac’s right arm, cold down his left. The forces concentrated in his fingertips. Midnight squirmed in his grasp, increasingly panicked, as if it knew what was happening. Inac offered a silent apology, then let both Fire and Dark flow beyond him. Gold flame sparked in the sphere that Midnight projected, until the darkness dropped and Inac knew the creature was dead.

Inac dropped to his knees and settled back on his feet, crying. He sat alone in the Shrine holding a lifeless creature in his hands. He could see its shape more clearly now. Curled up, its body rigid as stone, Midnight had been transformed by Inac’s Archemagic into iridescent obsidian. Inac closed his eyes and placed a hand on Midnight’s body, offering it the compassion he should have given from the beginning.

The hatchling deserved better than this. It was a creature of Dark, but it wasn’t evil. It didn’t know what it was doing. It simply followed its nature.

Just like Inac.

Voices reached him from the direction of the village. Inac gingerly placed Midnight’s body in his satchel and surveyed the damage to the Shrine. The ice had melted from the tree, but even with the creature gone deep cracks tarnished the display. Inac winced, but there was nothing he could do about this. He got to his feet then took off into the jungle, heading up the hill toward the tower.

Hiding in the gloom of the wild, Inac watched as the Elders left the Sage’s Tower. Aveadem went with them, but worry didn’t unwind itself from Inac’s chest until he closed the door to his study behind him. He found a nook in the dusty corner of the room to hide Midnight’s body from the Sage. Inac promised to find time to bury the creature when exhaustion didn’t threaten to take him. Now, he had to finish his essay. He retrieved Way of the Lake from his woven satchel and settled onto the stool for a long night of writing.

He fell asleep before he opened the book.

The door slammed against the wall and started him awake. Inac jolted upright and fell from the stool. Hard impact with the ground cleared away the haze of sleep. Inac blinked and saw Aveadem scowling down at him.

“Get up,” the Sage snapped. “Look at you. You’re filthy! Where have you been?”

Truth and lies swirled in Inac’s mind before he finally settled on, “Only to the garden. I work better outdoors.”

Aveadem grunted. “And your essay? You’d better have finished it. Something happened in the village last night. Today is not the day to test me.”

“No,” Inac admitted. When the Sage bared his teeth and took a deep breath, Inac’s mind scrambled for a lifeline. “But I have for you something better!”

This had better work, Inac thought, closing his eyes. The Fire sparked to life inside him. He felt it in his hands, then the heat spread from his palms up to his elbows, to his shoulders, past his heart and to his core. He dared to open a single eye and saw Aveadem studying him with a look of skepticism, if not outright hostility. Inac pushed through, as the Sage taught him, but he didn’t suffer the pain.

As the Archefire swelled and its heat nearly became unbearable, Inac let the Archedark rush from his core to push out the flames. His skin felt cold even as the Fire engulfed his entire right forearm, as though he wore a bracer made of ice. He pushed even further and the Archefire slicked off his arm to coalesce into a molten orb that hung in midair. Inac felt his control slip and it drifted toward Aveadem, but the Sage snuffed it out before it could burn him.

Inac released the Dark and felt it recede. He cringed, waiting for his mentor to berate him. He had lost control; he’d singed the whiskers on Aveadem’s face. Surely, he had another night of essays in store. Far worse, if the Sage could sense Archedark. Understanding the truth about Archemagic would allow him to progress quickly, but it was a secret he could never allow to escape.

“Inac!” the Sage exclaimed with mirthful bewilderment. “That was marvelous! What did you read in that book?”

Inac froze, too shocked to think of an answer. “I—Something missing just fell for me into place.”

The dark business in the village, the mud on Inac’s robes, the smell of burning hair. All were forgotten for the moment. For the first time that Inac could remember, he heard his Father laugh.

“My apprentice,” Aveadem said. “I’ll make a Sage out of you yet!”

Inac grinned, but the Sage’s teachings weren’t his to mastery. He glanced toward the nook where Midnight’s body rested. He only needed to see things in a different light to discover his true nature.