“The Quail Runs” by D.J. Butler

“I want to walk,” Udad said.

“We know!” Aksil slapped his younger brother on his twisted thigh through the green linen of his burnoose. Udad sat astride a camel, held in place by knotted strips of leather that provided the grip that Udad’s misshapen legs could not. Aksil forced himself to smile, though he felt trepidation. “We will be at the cave soon.”

Udad was nearing his ninth summer; Aksil, his twelfth.

The boys’ uncle, Izemrasen, turned to look back at them. He carried a spear and wore a burnoose dyed a simple brown. Izemrasen served as their protector, though Aksil was armed as well, with a throwing stick and four short javelins. Izemrasen was also their guide.

The sun had traveled a handspan since they’d left the main trade track. They followed an inconspicuous trail wandering north of the track. A warm breeze tugged at Aksil’s face and he tasted copper. His stomach growled.

“We’re almost there,” Izemrasen said.

“Did the witch tell you how long this trail was, too?” Aksil scanned the hills around them; they were thick with tall green grass that was rapidly fading to yellow.

“I can smell the water.” Izemrasen sniffed.

Udad sniffed the air. His nose was as bent as his legs, but his eyes sparkled. “I want to walk. I want to walk now. The rest of the way. I want to gallop.”

“Save your strength,” Izemrasen said. “We will have to climb, the witch said.”

“Also, he can’t gallop,” Aksil pointed out. “What if he can’t climb?”

“I can climb,” Udad assured them.

“If he can’t climb on his own,” Izemrasen said, “you and I will help him.”

“But I’ll climb down without your help,” Udad insisted. “Because I’ll be healed.”

Izemrasen laughed. “I expect you will leap back down the mountain like an addax.”

“The witch said it was a mountain?” Udad asked.

“That was her word.”

They continued, the camel loping gracefully along the path, and Aksil following behind, watching for bandits. They were far from Ahuskay village, and if bandits beset them, there was little they could do other than run.

“Aksil!” Izemrasen called. “You go ahead for a bit. I have to remove a pebble from my sandal.”

While his uncle sat and removed the offending stone, Aksil took the lead, heading forward along the path that now began to slope downward. Udad followed, holding the reins of the camel himself.

The grass thickened and grew greener, suggesting water, and trees began to dot the hills around them, and then cluster together, forming into groves.

Suddenly, a fat brown quail burst from a low bush to Aksil’s right. It broke left across the path and raced away, causing a waving furrow of grass to ripple up the hill to his left. Aksil threw a javelin and missed.

He cursed and retrieved the spear, returning to the path to find Izemrasen standing where Aksil had stood to throw, holding the camel.

“Hungry?” his uncle asked.

“Aren’t you?” Aksil countered.

“To eat, I’m afraid you must be smarter than the quail,” Izemrasen told him.

“I think you mean faster than the quail,” Aksil grumbled.

“That’s one way to eat,” Izemrasen agreed, a smile cracking his leathery face. “But you and I are not faster than quail. Are we smarter than the bird?”

“Why are you taunting me?” Aksil asked. “Let’s take Udad to the mountain. You said there are fig trees there.”

“The figs may be ripening,” Izemrasen conceded. “Are you giving up on the feast of quail’s flesh? Or quail’s eggs?”

“No,” Aksil said. “I am giving up on your lesson. So if there’s something you think I need to learn here, you’d better go right ahead and tell me.”

Izemrasen harrumphed. “I’m your uncle. I’m supposed to teach you.”

“I’m going now.” Aksil took a step.

“The quail runs to distract you,” Izemrasen said.

“Distract me from what?” Then Aksil realized what his uncle was saying. “From her eggs.”

Izemrasen chuckled and nodded.

Aksil laid his javelins and throwing stick in the grass and crept slowly into the bushes from which the quail had emerged. He pushed the leaves aside gently, feeling the spiny branches poke him in the hands and arms. He was careful not to set his foot on any patch of ground without carefully examining it first.

And there they were; a mound of quail eggs, heaped tightly in the thickest part of the bush. Aksil counted them carefully.

“Twelve eggs,” he lied. There were eleven.

He handed four to his uncle first, to honor Izemrasen for the lesson. Izemrasen immediately cracked the first egg and sucked its contents out in one gulp. Aksil handed four eggs to Udad and then stood turned to the side to conceal the number of eggs he had as he devoured them.

The eggshells cast aside to the outraged shrieking of the quail, they descended the remaining stretch of trail and came to a lake. The witch’s “mountain” was an orange cliff, and at the base of which lay a brilliant, clear pool. Water sprang from the cliff and poured into the pool. Around the pond stood trees bearing dates, which were green, but also figs, some of which were beginning to ripen. Aksil collected two figs for each of them, while Izemrasen stood in place and examined the rock face.

“There,” Izemrasen said. “A crack in the stone, do you see? It is as the witch described. To our right, we will find a shelf that climbs up to that crack.”

“I will climb it,” Udad said.

“We shall see.” Izemrasen began unknotting the thongs holding Udad in place.

Aksil drank from the pool. “Addax tracks here,” he said. “And antelope. Perhaps tonight I will take a beast for us to eat.” He puffed out his chest. He had never yet, in fact, killed an addax or an antelope. He had killed fowl from time to time, and had once helped butcher a goat, after Izemrasen had killed it.

“Very good.” Izemrasen helped Udad down. Then, while the boy stood wobbling on his twisted legs, Izemrasen tied the camel to a fig tree, within reach of the water and plenty of grass. Then he began helping his crippled nephew limp to the right, where the witch had claimed their path lay.

“This witch,” Aksil said. “She herself was healed by the power of the cave?”

“Healed of boils,” Izemrasen answered.

“She slept the night in the cave?” Aksil asked.

“That’s how the spirit works.”

“The spirit heals at night?” Aksil pressed.

“Everyone knows that all spirits are most active in the darkness,” Izemrasen said. “They fear the sun. In this, they are the opposite of mankind.”

Aksil filled their waterskin, slung it over his shoulder, and turned to follow his family. As he pivoted, disturbed earth among the addax tracks caught his eye and he stopped.

There were sandal tracks mixed with the spoor of the horned beasts. Men had walked here recently.

But enormous men. Their feet—he pressed his own foot into one of the tracks, and it didn’t fill half the imprint. Looking in all directions and forcing himself not to break into a run, he followed his uncle.

The ascending shelf was where the witch had foretold it would be. Its bottom end was above any of their heads, so Izemrasen pushed Udad up and then scrambled after him.

“Shall I come up also?” Aksil asked.

“He won’t need the help to climb,” Izemrasen said, and it was true. Udad was already scrambling on all fours up the shelf toward the crack. “You can come if you want. But the spirit will be in the cave. And if you come up, no one will be watching the camel. Would you like to spend the night in the cave with Udad? Maybe I should watch the camel?”

Aksil looked back toward where the beast grazed. The camel was a significant portion of their family’s wealth.

“Does the spirit . . .” Aksil hesitated. “Does the spirit have large feet?”

Izemrasen snorted. “Maybe. Spirits are powerful and can take different shapes. Maybe the spirit of the cave can take a shape that has feet.”

“Large feet,” Aksil said again.

“It’s a powerful spirit,” Izemrasen said, “its feet could be large. It could have a hundred feet. It could have wings, or the form of a goat. It could take five forms all at one. I knew a man whose wife had several spirit forms. A goat, and a hawk, and another one, I forget. Sometimes her spirit forms would appear many leagues from where she was. Sometimes in two places at once. Spirit-fragments, I suppose.”

“That sounds very useful,” Aksil said.

“It was,” Izemrasen agreed. “Except that her spirit-fragments caused great mischief. They killed antelope and scattered goats and were regarded as demons, and so eventually, she had to be killed.”

Aksil handed the waterskin up to his uncle. “You’ll need this. I’ll stay here and watch the camel.”

Izemrasen stood holding the waterskin and looked to the sky in the west, just turning orange. “Udad has to spend the night in the cave, and then his legs will be straightened.”

“He’ll be able to keep up with the goats,” Aksil said.

“With his older brother.” Izemrasen grinned.

Surely, Aksil reasoned, he had imagined the sandal print. He walked back to the water to examine the scuffed earth. Again, he seemed to see the footprint of an enormous man. The footprint must belong to the healing spirit. The spirit had descended from the mountain for a drink and had now climbed back into the cave.

Aksil squinted at the looming shadow of the cliff above him, darkening rapidly from purple toward black.

Izemrasen and Udad would have to worry about the spirit with giant feet. Aksil could bed down in the grass and sleep.

He checked the camel first; it was tethered firmly, with plenty of room to drink, graze, relieve itself, and sleep.

Being tired, he then made a rough bed for himself by bending down tall grass into a wiry pallet. He formed his bed at the base of the cliff, where the rock leaned outward above and created a little shelter from any chance rain that might fall in the night. Lying too close to the camel might get him stepped on or bitten. Laying his weapons on the ground beside him, within easy reach, he unwrapped his own gray burnoose and draped it over his own body as a blanket. The burbling spring and pool lay to his right, a narrow strip of stone separating the water from the base of the cliff.

Should he light a fire?

If the spirit did descend, he didn’t want to attract its attention and become a target for its mischief. The night would be cool, but Aksil decided to forego flames.

He watched the stars shift slowly across the sky. What was Udad feeling? If the spirit was straightening his brother’s legs now, did that hurt? Was the spirit on his legs to straighten them, or hitting them with hammers?

But Aksil didn’t hear any screaming. He heard chirruping insects, and the occasional rustle in the grass that indicated a larger animal passing by. Sleep was slow to take him. He imagined Udad pummeled by spirits, or healed Udad rushing down the rock shelf in joyous leaps, or spirits with big feet and hammers looking for Aksil, to twist his legs in payment for the straightening of Udad’s limbs.

Then his eyes snapped open, and Aksil realized he had been asleep.

He heard growling from the direction of the camel. Aksil looked up and saw the spirit.

It was indeed a powerful spirit, as Izemrasen has suggested. It had split itself into two, like the woman Izemrasen knew. The fragments of the spirit stalked around the camel, which lay on the ground on its folded legs. The spirit-fragments had the shapes of men, but they were half again as tall as they should be, and they wore the heads of cats. They wore sandals, too, and short capes, and they held spears in their hands.

The camel bellowed in fear.

Aksil rose to a crouch. He gathered his burnoose in his left arm and scooped up his javelins in the other hand. The spirit-fragments hissed and yowled to each other. The camel screamed and struggled to its feet.

The demons pounced. They moved like cats, with confident speed, and they tore at the camel’s neck with jaws wide open. One more scream that tightened Aksil’s spine and the camel flopped to the ground, red with its own gore.

Aksil bit his tongue.

What were the other spirit-fragments doing to his brother in the cave? Was the camel’s death necessary, a sacrifice to pay for the healing that they sought?

The cat-headed spirits ate some of the flesh of the camel, but they quickly fell to yowling at each other again. Then they sniffed the air, stalking in a restricted circle around the camel’s corpse. The demons didn’t like the taste of camel flesh, it seemed. They looked toward Aksil where he lay, but their gaze didn’t linger. Had the shadow of the cliff hidden him, then?

But they took several steps toward the bottom of the rock shelf, stopped, and sniffed. They yowled at each other again.

Were they smelling Aksil’s trail? But they didn’t come in his direction but continued on toward the rock shelf and the path that led to the crack above.

Where Izemrasen and Udad were.

Would they harm his uncle and brother? Or would they participate in Udad’s healing?

They had killed the camel.

Aksil leaped to his feet. He slung his burnoose over his shoulder as he padded along the strip of stone past the pool of water. Then he turned, tipped a spear into the throwing stick, and sent it racing at the spirit-fragments.

He was not an experienced killer, but Aksil had thrown many spears. He could throw long and he could aim true. This javelin struck the closer of the two demons in the back of its catlike head.

The demon roared. Then both fragments turned, and Aksil ran.

On the far side of the pool, the ground dropped off swiftly, twisting and funneling into a gully that slid around behind the mount with the orange cliff face. A moon just edged its way around the hill, giving Aksil enough light to be able to run at nearly full speed.

He had seen the spirits sniff, though. Could they follow him by sense of smell?

Water splashed over sheets of rock, descending into the gully through a grove of tall fig trees. If the fragments could follow him by smell, Aksil needed to give them a false scent. He wrapped his burnoose around a javelin, aimed carefully at the darkest, thickest part of a tall fig tree, near the top, and released the spear.

His javelin struck the tree with a solid, meaty sound, and didn’t fall.

He splashed on, down the middle of the stream, keeping his feet in water as much as possible. He heard yowling, but he wasn’t sure whether it was becoming closer or farther away. He wanted the broken spirits to follow him. At least, long enough that they forgot about the scent of his brother and his uncle.

Flashes of the camel being torn apart burst repeatedly into his mind. Gully walls rose around him, at first comforting him that he wasn’t about to be attacked from left or right. But then the walls drew tighter, and his heartbeat grew more rapid.

The yowling stopped. It hadn’t grown closer.

Aksil stopped running. He stood still in the middle of the torrent, looking back up the well of shadow through which he’d descended. He saw silvery glints of moonlight on the ribbon of water, and a furred glow at the top that must be the open vale where the pool lay.

Did he hear sniffing?

He held still.

At the top of the gully, a shadow sped across the furred light from right to left. A second shadow followed. A spasm of glints on the left suggested a shaking tree, just catching the edge of the moonlight over the rim of the gully. Aksil heard a loud crack.

He moved downstream.

What had cracked? Was it possible the spirits had somehow been destroyed or defeated?

He moved slowly, to avoid splashing. Surely, the spirit-fragments would hear any splashes. He looked for the tiniest glints of reflected light from below to show him where the water ran, and he felt his way with each step.

What had made the cracking sound?

He heard yowling again, and he dared to look back. A shadow raced down the gully toward him. At least one shadow; but was it only one? He couldn’t be certain either way.

He couldn’t run fast enough to get away now. Aksil cast about, looking for a wall to climb or a hole to scurry into. Instead, he found a silvery green canopy overhead; leaves. The leaves of a fig tree.

He found the tree’s trunk. It was thick and scabby and his fingers and sandaled feet alike found easy purchase in it. Scrambling as fast as he could, he lost his grip on one of the objects in his hand—a javelin? He heard it clatter on the stones below.

The yowling paused, momentarily, and he heard sniffing sounds again. He saw nothing. The demons were close enough that he could hear them sniffing for him.

They would find him.

Was this what Udad was experiencing?

The trunk forked as he climbed. Beneath his feet, a thin branch snapped, the sound loud in the darkness.

The sniffing stopped.

The crack—it had been wood.

The spirit-fragments were large, and they were also heavy. They could climb trees, but if they climbed onto too thin a branch, the branch would not bear their weight and they would fall.

Aksil climbed higher.

But this could only be a dead end. If he climbed as high as possible, and didn’t fall, and the cat demons couldn’t follow, they could still stand at the bottom of the tree and wait for him.

He heard the rush of a spear being thrown at him, and the thud of its being deflected by a thick branch.

But the spirit healed at night.

Perhaps the spirit-fragments broke away from the healing part of the spirit at nighttime, too, and then they rejoined one another in the daylight. Rejoined, and perhaps went to sleep. Spirits were active in the darkness, they feared the sun.

If he could stay in the tree until dawn, perhaps he would survive.

But he also needed the demons to stay beneath him, and not to go eat his brother.

When the branch he clung to swayed from side to side, and a cool night breeze turned his sweat into a chilled cloak, he judged that he might have climbed high enough. His burnoose was gone, and he wore only a loincloth. Examining what he still held in his hands, he found that he had dropped the throwing stick, and clutched two javelins.

Bathed in moonlight, rising above most of the canopy of the fig tree’s leaves, Aksil looked down. To his surprise, he could see the demons. Their bodies lay cloaked in shadow, but their catlike heads bobbed on the tide of darkness as they prowled about the tree.

He fought to control his breathing, and to stay silent.

One spirit-fragment gripped the trunk of the tree and began to climb. Aksil edged slightly higher on the branch, afraid he’d snap it. The demon snarled as it climbed, and then shouted words at him that he didn’t understand. Aksil swayed one direction with the tree and then the other as the cat-headed thing ascended. He gripped the branch tightly with his knees, passed one javelin into left hand, pressed against the bark, and took careful aim.

The demon hesitated in its climb. It looked up, eyes gleaming in the moonlight that shone full on its face. It twisted its muzzle into a sneering expression and hissed.

Aksil feigned a throw of the javelin, but didn’t release the weapon.

The demon leaped to the side, grabbing at other branches to support itself. Those other branches were smaller and snapped instantly under the burden. The spirit-fragment crashed to the ground.

Instantly, the other demon sprang onto the tree trunk and raced toward Aksil. Froth foamed from its muzzle and wrath blazed in its eyes as it burst through the thickest veil of foliage below and charged upward. Aksil feigned another throw with the javelin, shouting this time: “Go away!”

The cat demon didn’t flinch.

Aksil threw the javelin.

He struck the demon directly in its spirit-face. He would have sworn he hit it right in the eye, but a hit to the eye should have lodged the javelin tip deep in the monster’s skull. Instead, the demon lost its grip on the tree and fell. More branches cracked and fell in a rain around the spirit-fragment. The beast crashed to the ground and lay still.

But it groaned.

It wasn’t dead.

Perhaps it couldn’t be killed. It was a spirit-fragment, after all.

Aksil cursed silently by every god, spirit, demon, and ancestor he could think of. “May these monsters be driven away by the rising!” he mumbled aloud. Then he added, “And may Udad be healed!”

The two demons were shouting, but not at him. They were arguing. After several tense exchanges, one cat shoved the other, knocking it down. The demon leaped to its feet, they both bared teeth and growled, and for a moment, Aksil dared to hope they might kill each other.

Instead, one backed down.

Then, without another sound, they bobbed away on the darkness again, vanishing up the gully.

Aksil took a deep breath.

He had survived.

But the demons were returning to the pool. Would they eat the camel? Would they leave it, and return to their spirit world, rejoining the fragments, perhaps, that were healing Udad?

Or would they climb the rock shelf, find Izemrasen and Udad, and kill them?

Aksil lowered himself down the tree.

He eased himself onto the ground. Finding his second javelin, he picked it up. The moon had now risen high enough to throw its light into the bottom of the gully, and the stream appeared as an interrupted ribbon, snarling its way downhill at a steeper and steeper angle. The gully widened, and the fig trees were interspersed with tumbled boulders and heaps of rock. What lay behind the hill? A deeper canyon?

He looked upstream. The heads of the demons and now also their shoulders and torsos crept up toward the pool.

Toward his family.

“Demons!” he shouted. “I don’t fear you!”

He meant to wait, to be certain they were following him. But when the spirit-fragments pivoted, he ran.

He heard the yowling instantly. Surely, they were following him again.

He ran all out, his feet sure on the dry stream bank. How long before he had to get up into a tree again? Moments? A minute? Three minutes?

He risked a look back and almost fell over his own feet, but saw the spirit-fragments splashing toward him in the stream.

Tree, he needed a tree! But as he cast about, Aksil saw that he hadn’t planned well. There were no trees near him. And if he climbed atop one of the massive boulders that now surrounded him, the cat-demons could easily follow.

The yowling became a shriek.

But they might not be able to follow him under the rocks.

Aksil hurled himself into the narrow, dark crack at the base of a heavy boulder, praying that it would be open enough to permit him entrance. He feared he’d die with a broken neck, having slammed himself into unyielding stone.

Instead, the crack led back into darkness.

He dragged himself, feeling the skin of his arms and knees and chest abrade. Behind him, he smelled the musk of cats, and then he heard a swish and felt the air moving on his calves that told of a near miss.

He didn’t stop. He kept dragging himself, hearing the screeching of cats, until suddenly the rock above him vanished and he saw light again. Had he gone too far, was he exposed, on the other side of the boulder?

But no, he stood and found himself inside a chamber roughly shaped like a pyramid. Above him, a crack admitting moonlight showed that the pyramid was formed by one massive boulder leaning against another. Across from him, a dull gray smear at the level of his ankles showed another possible exit.

He crouched and waited, a javelin in each hand. The demons yowled and hissed outside. They barked at each other in their unknown language. One tried to get in the same crack that had admitted Aksil, but ground to a halt, cursing, and then backed out. Shortly after, one of the demons tried to force itself into the other crack at ground level, but to no avail.

Aksil watched the gap in the chamber’s ceiling but saw nothing.

When the cat sounds began to die down, Aksil taunted the demons. “Do you fear me? You should! I am Aksil, I have slain a goat!”

It was a lie; he had not even slain a goat. But if the demons couldn’t reach him inside the pile of boulders, he wished to induce them to remain outside, gnashing their teeth, until the sun did away with them.

“I am Aksil, and I have killed a thousand of your kind! I can swallow the sun! Flee now, and you will live!”

The spirit-fragments howled in rage, tried again to come in through the cracks on the ground, failed, and eventually fell silent.

Aksil yelled more, but there was no response.

How long could he wait?

Might the demons have abandoned him and his family entirely?

He couldn’t take the chance. Heart beating and palms sweaty, Aksil climbed to the height of the chamber and peeked out the crack. Seeing nothing, he took heart and emerged. He crouched on the boulder heap and looked.

There were the spirit-fragments, winding their way back up the gully. They moved more slowly than they had before. This was no surprise; Aksil’s own legs felt as if they were made of stone.

From his height, and with the benefit of the full light of the moon, Aksil looked down the canyon. He saw that the gully floor seemed to fall away in a few dozen paces. He couldn’t see how far the drop was or what lay below it, but he saw that a tree rose near the canyon wall to his left, a fig tree tall enough that he thought he could get up into its topmost branches and again take shelter.

He slid down from the heap of boulders and bellowed at the demons in his loudest voice. “Ho, demons! Are you cowards?”

They turned and looked at him across the boulder-strewn canyon. For a minute, they stared at him with no apparent reaction. Then they turned to each other, and if they spoke, it was low, and Aksil didn’t hear it.

They came toward him.

They didn’t charge, this time. They split up, angling so that one came on his right and the other on his left. Aksil’s heart leaped into his throat. Were they driving him toward the cliff? What did they know that he didn’t?

He ran. He swerved behind one large boulder to try to hide himself from view, but then raced straight as a falcon’s flight toward the tree beside the canyon wall. He felt as if he were walking through honey, as if the wind blowing on his face was pushing him backward, but he covered the distance before the demons reached him.

This time, they weren’t yowling. They could be immediately behind him, and he wouldn’t know it. He didn’t risk a look back but scampered directly up the tree trunk.

When he could see down over the lip of the drop, his head spun and he almost lost his grip on the tree. On the opposite side of the canyon, the stone sloped downward, steep but scalable. Beneath Aksil and his tree, the ground fell away, straight down.

Addax grazed on a plain below. They looked like beetles to him.

He dropped the javelins, and they went over the cliff.

He took a deep breath, gripped the bole of the tree, and forced himself to concentrate. Up, there was only up. There could only be up.

He dragged himself up the length of his body, and then the length of his body again.

The tree shook when the first cat-demon struck it.

Up, only up.

He climbed limbs that bent under his weight now, but he dared not stop. The yowling commenced, and the harsh shouting of unknown words.

He took risks, pulling himself faster. Beneath him, wood creaked but did not snap.

He saw a long branch that extended almost horizontally, but came to rest on a ledge above the great fall. Surely, the branch was too small for the spirit-fragments. He took several steps along it, holding a parallel and higher limb, and the branch bowed beneath him.

He smelled cat and heard heavy panting.

The branch beneath his feet bowed, and the higher branch slipped from his fingers. He yelped, took two quick steps, and jumped to the ledge.

He landed in a heap of pain and dizziness, but the rock was solid and he clung to it. He curled inward on himself, fearing teeth sinking into his neck, but no blow came.

Slowly, he rolled over and sat up. Scooting himself farther from the tree, he saw the two demons. They clung to the tree’s thick trunk and glared at him. One eased a foot out onto the limb Aksil had traversed, but it bowed so severely that the spirit-fragment retreated.

Aksil pointed down onto the plain below. “Addax,” he said. “If you are hungry, spirits, I offer you all those addax. Take them and leave me and mine in peace.”

The spirit-fragment growled guttural words at each other. Then one of them hissed at Aksil. Clinging tightly to the tree trunk, it deliberately stomped on Aksil’s branch until the branch broke.

The demons both made a sound like laughter.

Then they climbed down the tree.

Aksil watched as the spirit-fragments accepted his sacrifice. They descended slowly into the plain below, killed an addax by sneaking up on it, and then ate its flesh.

When the demons finished, they walked across the plain, away from Aksil.

With the branch gone, Aksil couldn’t reach the tree except by jumping. He doubted his ability to make the jump, and a fall would be to his death. So he shivered out the night on the ledge, and as the morning sun warmed his stiff limbs, he carefully climbed his way up the face of the cliff to the grassland above.

The return to the pool was a simple journey, but a painful one. Aksil’s skin stung from his many scrapes, his feet felt battered, and every muscle was as tight as dried wood. He was thirsty and hungry to boot, and no quail conveniently revealed a cache of eggs to him, despite his fervent wish.

When he reached the pool, he lay on his belly and drank from it. Rising, he saw Izemrasen approaching from the stone shelf. Ahead of Izemrasen came Udad.

Who ran and leaped, like a camel’s calf.

“The spirit!” Udad cried. “I have been visited by the spirit!”

“Yes.” Aksil recovered his javelin that lay near the pool. “That’s good, because you’ll have to walk home.”

“I felt warm!” Udad continued. “I lay in the dark in the cave. It smelled foul. I felt cold, but then suddenly I felt warm, my legs felt warm.”

“Did you see the spirit?” Aksil asked. “Did it have the head of a cat?”

“I saw nothing,” Udad said. “There was no light at all. Why would the spirit have the head of a cat?”

“What happened to the camel?” Izemrasen examined the dead beast. “A lion?”

“I was also visited by . . . spirits in the night,” Aksil said. “Or maybe demons. They were giants with the heads of cats.”

Udad wrinkled his long, bent nose. “Did you feel warm, too?”

Aksil shook his head. “I thought maybe they were the same as the spirit of the cave, but . . . maybe I was wrong. Or if they were the same as your spirit, then perhaps they took the camel as a sacrifice, for their gift to Udad.”

“If so, the sacrifice was worth it,” Izemrasen said.

“Yes,” Aksil agreed. “It was worth it.”

Copyright © 2023 by D.J. Butler

D.J. ("Dave") Butler grew up in swamps, deserts, and mountains. After messing around for years with the practice of law, he finally got serious and turned to his lifelong passion of storytelling. He now writes adventure stories for readers of all ages, plays guitar, and spends as much time as he can with his family. He is the author of the Witchy War series, The Cunning Man series (with Aaron Michael Ritchey), the Indrajit and Fix series, Abbott in Darkness, and many other novels and stories. "The Quail Runs" is set in the world of his latest novel, Time Trials, which he cowrote with M.A. Rothman.