Quinn, a remarkable lad who has no idea how remarkable he truly is, longs for adventure. He gets one with his grandfather, the formidable Black Art.
Black Art by PJ McIlvaine
Quinn found him in the fields, barely breathing under a blanket of snow. If he had not found him when he did, it was a certainty that he wouldn’t have lasted another hour, let alone a day. He slept for a week, sweaty with fever, and when he finally roused, he was weak as a newborn foal. The only name Quinn and Sosie knew him by was what Irina, their mother, had called him even before he had left with their father. She spat it out milking the beasts, cried it when her fingers bled from tilling the rocky soil that produced very little: Black Art.
Black Art, once a proud lion of a man, had sat by the fire for weeks on end, old and shriveled. Sosie had no recollection of him, and only a dim memory of their father. But Quinn did, for he had the curse that he remembered everything and forgot nothing.
Irina burned to know what had happened to Ernst, but Black Art, though ill, was not a man to be hurried. It came out one evening like a quick storm that had taken days to brew. Irina had cajoled a fretful Sosie to bed. Quinn was at the table, doing his lessons by the lantern. Black Art was in his chair, his unlit pipe in his hand. Irina bounded in, hands trembling, hours of worry and fear exploding. “What have you done with my husband? You should have been gone three months!”
Black Art calmly lit his pipe with an ember. “Woman, you would not believe me even if I told you.” He took a long breath before continuing, his face gray as the smoke curling from his pipe. “The devil got him, but don’t you worry. I will get him back.”
Irina let out a shrill laugh, thinking the fever had seized him again.
Quinn didn’t know what to make of it. He had heard the hushed whispers, seen the sharp looks and elbow jostling every time they went into the village to trade. It was said that his maternal grandmother had the gift of healing, and her mother before her, but Irina had chosen a different path. His paternal grandfather, too, apparently had the ability of second sight. The days and nights of necromancers and fire-breathing dragons were long gone, but the old ways of the forest and Mother Nature were still feared, and it was a cold hard fact that no man in the village was more feared than Black Art.
Black Art turned to Quinn. “The gnarled tree in the North Fork. I buried a rucksack by the overgrown root. I must have it. Do not dawdle to look inside it. I will know if you do.”
Quinn flew out of the cabin as if he had wings. Usually he did not go out after sunset, but he was more frightened of his grandfather than of any wild forest creature. The stars were low in the sky and an owl screeched a lonely tune as he dug around the root with his bare hands. He unearthed a tattered rucksack and ran back to their cabin quick as a rabbit. Whatever was inside the sack, it was heavy, warm and pulsating like a man’s heart.
Black Art smiled as he reached inside the rucksack and retrieved a smooth glistening orb that sparkled with a thousand colors.
Irina turned pale and gasped. “I will not have that thing in my house!”
“Pardon? Your house?” Black Art roared. “Daughter, you forget that I and your mother, God rest her soul, lay in this very room before you were born.” He stared hard at Quinn, his eyes like snake slits. “Boy, do you know what this is?”
Quinn nodded. It was a Dae’gron egg. He had never seen one before, of course, but everyone knew the story of the last dragon and how in her despair she had been tricked to mate with a daemon. Their doomed offspring was neither dragon nor daemon, but a hideous tailed beast with misshapen wings and gnarled talons sharper than the King’s own war blade. When Quinn was no higher than his father’s knee, a family in the Hill Lands had been slashed to ribbons. Ernst had been in the hunting party. The pitiful, maggot-infested carcass they brought back bore scant resemblance to the monster of the old tales. After a few days, the carcass was cut up for scraps and thrown to the dogs, but even they would not gnaw it. There had been no reports of the beast since, and it was widely believed that it had been hunted out of existence.
Black Art’s face softened as he poured homemade ale into two goblets and slid one toward Irina. “Child, I am an old man who will have no more great adventures. I am not long for this world. As a father, I know I could have done better, but I beg you, take pity on me this night only and let us drink with no hard feelings.”
Irina bore no great love for her father, but she had been taught to respect her elders, so she drank. When she woke three days later, she discovered that Black Art had kept his promise, probably for the first time in his life. He and the Dae’gron egg were indeed gone. So were Quinn and Sosie. By that time they were deep in the heart of the Crystal Mountains, where icicles hung like rapiers and fog was so thick it choked like vines.
At first Sosie had whimpered, but a handful of sweet comb candy, which Black Art kept in his pocket for just such an occasion, soothed her. Quinn was secretly thrilled. He was on an adventure. He would not have had it any other way. There were old graybeards in their village that had never been on any adventure; hardly even stuck a thumb beyond the valley, and here Quinn was not even ten.
It soon became evident to Quinn that his grandfather had planned this journey well. At the end of each day, they always found shelter: a cabin, a lean-to, a bungalow, a tree fort. There was always food and Black Art made sure that Quinn saw where the provisions were hidden. As the days went by, Black Art said very little, and Quinn asked very little. His father had taught him the value of patience.
One night they set up camp in the tall billowing grasses of the Sheep Meadow. Sosie, exhausted, drifted off to sleep without touching her plate. The fire burned low as Quinn huddled under a blanket.
Black Art nodded his head in approval. “You are your father’s son, obedient and respectful. He has reason to be proud.” He tossed a pine cone into the fire, and it crackled.
“Why did the devil take Father?” Quinn blurted.
It took a moment for Black Art to respond. “It was because he was an honest man. Understand that of all the souls the devil collects, the soul of an honest man is the most prized and desired of all. To corrupt it gives the devil enormous pleasure, as he feeds on deceit, betrayal and treachery.”
As Black Art told it, there had been three trials. Their hunt had born little, and with winter on their backs like a braying wife, they were forced to go farther outland than usual. On their travels they encountered a blind, bedraggled beggar. The beggar dropped his cup, and out of it spilled four King’s coins.
“As I am not an honest man, I would have put two coins in the cup. Your father put all four back, for he could not abide taking from the less fortunate under false pretenses.” Black Art sighed as he cradled his broadsword.
Shortly afterwards, they came upon an ox, robust and well-fed. “That ox would have fed us for two seasons, and since I am a thief and not ashamed of it, I would have spent more time pissing in the bushes than on finding its rightful owner. But your father insisted, and he soon found the beast’s owner, a widow woman with six mouths to feed.”
The last trial came when they had stopped at a tavern for the night. A woman of low birth had offered herself to Ernst. “If I had been ten years younger, I would have lain with the slattern, for being faithful was never one of my virtues. But your father would sooner cut out his heart and serve it on a silver platter to the King then betray your mother.”
Soon Ernst fell ill. His arms and legs swelled up to twice its size, and he was afflicted with a strange fever, hot one moment, cold the next. “At first I thought it was a spider bite, but no, it was the devil, furious and not to be denied. Your father fell into a half-sleep, not dead, not alive. Desperate times call for desperate measures. That is when I struck a devil’s bargain.”
Quinn knew the answer in a heartbeat. “The Dae’gron Egg,” he whispered.
“Aye,” Black Art nodded. “When I started out there were three, and now there is only one, which makes it all the more precious.”
“So we are going to see the Devil?”
“Some call him the Devil, but there is more than one, and he takes many shapes.” Black Art stared at Quinn, not unkindly. “All will be revealed in due time, boy. It will be especially hard for you. I suspect you will discover more gifts as you grow older. I think the same will be true of your sister.”
Quinn bit his lower lip, drawing blood. He thought back to the day when he had been with the older boys in their cubbyhole. He watched as they did unspeakable things to a tree lizard. To his shame, he had done nothing to stop them. Unbeknownst to Quinn, Sosie had followed them, and when the older boys had gone, she found the dead lizard. Quinn could not say what happened next, but within seconds the lizard came back to life and slithered away. Frightened, Quinn told his father what had happened, but Ernst said it was best not to speak of it or tell his mother.
Black Art puffed on his pipe. “Your father was right. Your great-grandfather was shunned for much less.”
Quinn nearly leapt out of his skin. “How could you know that? Are you a sorcerer? I thought they were all dead.”
Black Art smiled. “Necromancy is not dead, it has been forgotten. It only takes one person who believes. Belief can move mountains.”
Quinn thought of his mother, who did not believe.
“True. She does not. Yet.” Black Art’s face hardened. “We have prattled enough for one night. Rest, for tomorrow will be another arduous day. We are on the most perilous part of our journey. There will come a time when you must do as I say with no questions asked. You will hear and see terrible things but you must not waver or look back. Luckily you have youth on your side, for if there is one thing that the Devil hates above all else it is children, for children are innocent and do not fear him as we adults do. Do you understand?”
Quinn did not, but he nodded anyway, fear filling his gut like mud in a sinkhole.
A few days later they began their descent into the Cavern of Lost Souls, a winding and seemingly never-ending maze of tunnels and caves that went deep into the core of the earth. They passed fire holes and oozing pits, and in the foul breeze they could hear the screeches and moans from the doomed, dying, and undead. They climbed and walked until their feet were blistered and sore, for Black Art kept a quick pace.
After what seemed like an eternity, they came upon a moat guarded by an imp with a stump for a face.
Sosie thought him quite droll and giggled.
“What mortal dares to pass through here?” the imp cried, indignant.
“I am no mere mortal, imp!” Black Art bellowed as he opened his rucksack and took out the egg.
The egg had changed greatly since the last time Quinn had laid eyes on it. For one thing, it was bigger, and its colors had faded while its surface had become translucent with tiny cracks. Quinn could see the outline of a misshapen creature with tiny wings. He shuddered.
Mesmerized by the egg, the imp motioned them to follow him as he scampered down a dark tunnel. Black Art put Sosie on his shoulders as they waded through waist-high water. Quinn felt things brush against his legs. He dared not look down. When the waters receded, they found themselves in a dark, dank corridor. As they walked things crunched under their shoes. Quinn glanced down and saw what looked like bones.
In the foreground there was an eerie orange glow, and they followed it like a beacon. It was there, in an enormous volcanic fire pit, that they came upon the Devil, half-man, half-beast, accompanied by another imp who was uglier than his brother.
“Who of the living dares to walk amongst the dead?” the Devil thundered.
Black Art shrouded Quinn and Sosie with his cloak. “You know who I am. Where is Ernst?”
“Where are my eggs?” the Devil retorted.
“Ernst. I did not come all this way to bargain.”
The Devil snapped his fingers. In an instant Ernst appeared, curled up in a ball, more dead than alive.
“Papa!” Sosie shrieked.
“What was that?” the Devil leered and flared his nostrils.
“Just a cry from the undead,” Black Art replied as he unearthed the Dae’gron egg.
“You said there were three!” the Devil bellowed.
“So there were. Now there is one. If you do not wish to—“Black Art held the egg over the fire pit.
“No!” the Devil roared.
Black Art drew closer to the center of the pit. “You will let Ernst go. When he has passed the cavern and is deep in the sun, then you shall have your damned egg. Not a moment before.”
The Devil reared back on his hind legs. “You go too far, black wizard! I will keep both, the man and the egg, and I will suck the marrow from your bones. What do you say about that?”
In an instant Quinn heard Black Art’s voice in his mind: Take your father and sister and run like the wind, as fast as your legs will carry you. And do not, under any circumstance, turn back.
Quinn leaped out of the shadows and reached for his father.
The Devil recoiled, his fear palpable. “A child! He has brought a child!” Furious, he hurled both imps into the pit.
Black Art threw the egg against the wall; thick, gelatinous goo spilled out. The puny Dae’gron, too feeble to breathe, choked on the muck.
“My child!” the Devil screamed.
Now Quinn, Black Art commanded. Now.
Black Art drew his broadsword and lunged at the Devil.
Quinn carried his father back the way they had come, dragging Sosie behind him. The mountain shook and trembled, as if in the grip of a powerful force. Rocks rained down on them as they navigated their way out. They did not stop until they were well in the grass lands.
Free of the Devil’s grip, Ernst made a remarkable recovery, his memory of the events erased. By the time they met up with Irina and some of the more brave souls from their village, Ernst was nearly the man that Irina had married. Soon the tale of Black Art and the Dae’gron Egg traveled through the land in hushed whispers, and everyone marveled at Black Art’s noble sacrifice. When Ernst went into the village, he was greeted warmly and with respect. His family prospered.
Late at night, when the moon was high and the sky blazoned with stars, Quinn liked to climb up on the thatched roof and remember, for remember he did. There, with everything quiet and still, he was sure that he heard the rumbling of Black Art and the Devil, deep in the throes of an eternal battle that had no winners or losers.
It only takes one person who believes. Belief can move mountains.