The Great Exodus:
By Steve Coate
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is part two of the six part serial, The Great Exodus. Read the first part.
Venil dived in and out of consciousness with great frequency. Each time he awoke, the man was aware of motion as he bobbed from side to side, and a feeling of weightlessness, as though he were floating above the ground. Perhaps it was all a dream. Sometimes he could fly in his dreams. And reality seemed just as out of reach as the waxing moon that hung in the sky above. He tried to touch the great white orb one time, but found he could move neither his hands nor his feet. Rather than expend the mental energy necessary to solve the puzzle of why this should be so, he surrendered once more to sleep.
When next he awoke, Venil sat upon the solid dirt ground, legs splayed out before him. The chill air and the hard earth beneath him made the man painfully aware of his nakedness.
He remembered then that the Artemise had overtaken his group. As he tried to stand, the pain in his head disoriented him and he stumbled back to the ground. A hand insinuated itself onto his shoulder.
“Easy there, friend,” came a voice from behind him that he assumed belonged to the hand exerting gentle pressure. “It looks like you took quite a blow to the noggin. You might be best advised to rest a bit before trying anything that takes more than a thought.”
Venil found his voice and as he turned to the other man, saw for the first time that he was in a cage crudely constructed of wooden poles. “Where are we? And who are you? Where are my clothes?” He saw the other man was also nude. “Where are yours, for that matter?”
Upon Venil’s movement, the other man had removed his restraining hand. “Welcome to the Artemise chattel cells.” He waved a hand through the air to indicate the expanse of the makeshift prison. “Your clothes, mine and those of every other man here, are gone. They were likely burned in the camp’s fire, because as far as these women are concerned, we do not need them anymore.” The man leaned close, and Venil saw the thick growth of dark hair on his chin that spoke to the length of the man’s stay. “You see, to them, we only have a limited purpose. There is manual labor that needs to be done and why should they resort to such things when they have us around? And then there is the simple fact that the Artemise are all women and in order to propagate, they need men.”
Venil’s eyes widened. He had heard rumors of such things, but had never put much stock in them until this moment.
“If you ask me, they do not like it that they need us for such a thing,” the man continued. “That is why we are treated so poorly.”
More confident in his balance, Venil cautiously attempted to stand. He gained his feet with a triumphant grunt of exertion and then looked to his newfound friend, being sure to keep his gaze from the more awkward areas of the man’s body. “Who did you say you were?”
The bald man grinned, revealing yellowed teeth with pronounced canines that looked as though they could rip through a throat in less time than Venil’s machete could hack through a tree branch. “I did not.” He winked. “But I can see we are fast becoming friends, so I will share my name with you. The way they burn through men here, it may not matter anyway.” The man stuck out his arm. “I am Gant Rellus.”
He clasped the other man’s arm, returning the greeting. “Venil Orlin.” He nodded toward the outside of the cage. “How bad is it?”
“For strong men like you and me, we could probably endure the work and the sex for months, maybe even years. But that is not the worst of it.” Venil looked a question at Gant and the man continued, needing no prodding. “Near as I can figure, I have been here about a month. Faster than you might imagine, the sex becomes work and the work is like sex, a welcome break from the day to day drudgery. But like I said, you do not really have to be worried with that. These women hate that they need us men. Especially the men from the cities, because that goes against everything that the Artemise believe in. It burns them up that they need our seed to keep them in supply of little women to run free in the wilds. So from time to time, they pull one of us out of the cages and make an example of him to the other men.”
“You mean they kill him?”
“Oh, they kill him all right, but that is the very last thing they do to the poor bastard. Before the final act, they emasculate their victim in every way physically and mentally possible. And to keep the rest of us in line, they do this in full view of our cages, so all us men can see what is in store for us later.”
Venil blew air through his nostrils, turned and gripped the bars of the cage, giving them a firm shake. “There must be some way out of here.”
“Not that way.” Gant shook his head. “Unless you have the strength of 20 men.”
Venil gave up on the solid bars. “When they come for the men, where do they take them?”
“For the joining?”
Venil nodded. He had thought that his meaning had been obvious.
Gant strode to the front of the cage and pointed through an opening between the bars. “They have tents set up across the way there.”
Venil’s gaze followed the direction of the bald man’s finger. “Has anyone ever . . .”
“You are kidding, right? Of course guys have tried escaping, during, before and after the fact. But they never make it more than a few steps, before they are cut down. We are kept chained when they move us and there are two Artemise with us at all times during the process. Once in the tent, men are chained to a post until it is over and while that is happening, there is an armed sentry posted directly outside the tent. Most men are too tired afterward to make an attempt anyway, but it has happened, sure.”
“It is the only opportunity I can think of.” Venil slammed a palm into one of the bars in frustration. “Damn it!” If he did not get Kelsey away from here soon, she would be sacrificed in the name of Artemise prophecy.
He looked at the sky. White fluffy clouds covered the brightness of the sun. “How long have I been here?”
“They brought you in last night. You slept through the night and into the morning. Some of us had a pool going on whether you would be waking up.”
Five days. He had five days, including this one, to escape and rescue Kelsey. Venil looked at Gant, survivor’s amusement writ upon his face. “Did you win?”
Gant looked away and his voice suddenly shrank. “Actually, I lost.”
This made Venil laugh. “What is there to bet around here, anyway?”
This set Venil’s stomach to rumbling. “Speaking of which, when do we eat?”
“First light and sundown. But do not begin thinking that you missed out on a delicacy this morning. We always get the same gruel, twice a day, every day. On a good day, it is bug free gruel.”
“Hey, don’t knock bugs,” Venil advised. “They may not taste like venison, but they will keep a man alive for a time when he has got nothing better.” Venil’s stomach rumbled again. He could kill for a few grasshoppers right about now.
Ewwww. That’s gross!
“Kelsey?” Venil turned about, looking all around him for the girl, then covered himself with both hands, suddenly embarrassed by his nudity.
How many other telepathic Sensers do you know? she thought to him. Seriously, though. Grasshoppers? Please tell me you were joking.
Venil shrugged his shoulders, uncovering himself as he realized Kelsey was not in the vicinity, at least, not near enough to see him. “A man does what has to be done when the
alternative is death.”
“True enough,” responded Gant. “Who is Kelsey?”
“Might be our way out of here,” he answered and then internalized his discussion with the girl. Can he hear us?
No. This is a two-way conversation.
Venil nodded and then reminded himself that she could not see the movement of his head. Where are you?
They have me trussed up in a tent. There’s another Senser here—they call her a shaman—who is dampening my abilities. But I figured out a way to bypass her temporarily and establish this mind link with you. I do not think I can do much else without arousing their suspicions, though. Are you okay?
Venil smiled at the girl’s concern. I am fine. Might get a little sunburned, though. They have me locked up in a cage with some other men. Don’t worry. I will find a way out and we will escape together. Perhaps Jade can help. Do you know where they are keeping her?
Unbidden, Venil’s mind filled with sorrow. She’s dead. They killed her when they captured us.
There goes that idea, he thought before realizing the girl could hear. I’m sorry, he thought. I am still new to this mind reading, or whatever this is. It is okay. I will think of something else. You should be all right, at least for the next few days, in any case. They need you for—he tried to think of a gentle way of putting it, then realized she was probably receiving a mental image from him anyway—an event that does not take place until then, so for now, you should be relatively safe. In his mind, he felt her shudder with fear. It is okay, he assured her once more. They do not know we can communicate with each other. We will use that to our advantage. Will I be able to contact you this way in the future? Or do I need to wait until you reach me?
Yes. Now that the link is established, either of us can initiate a conversation.
He might have been imagining it, but the girl’s thoughts seemed emboldened. Good. Venil smiled and hoped the feeling radiated through to Kelsey. You are being very brave. I will let you know as soon as I have a plan. We will get through this, together.
Now he just had to think of one.
Be careful, she cautioned.
At sundown, the women of the camp herded into the cage the men who had been outside doing manual labor all day. There were two women on the door at all times. Once the men were all inside, they lined up at the door and one by one sat in the dirt before the door and presented their feet to a third woman who stood just outside the cage. This woman had the arduous task of unshackling each man, who must have had their ankles shackled and chained before leaving the cage that morning for the work at hand. Venil wondered where these wild women had found the shackles and chains. Let alone the key that fitted the locks. It was fairly obvious they lacked the skill or know-how to fashion the tools themselves. Venil concluded the Artemise must have scavenged the cold metal jewelry during their nomadic wanderings and wondered what other things they might have discovered.
After this task had been successfully achieved with each man from the work detail, the two women who had been guarding the cage door waltzed off toward the center of the camp. The woman who had unshackled all the men, began passing small wooden bowls through the bars and a mass of greedy hands grabbed for them as though the dishes were some long forgotten treasure. When the sea of finger-filled flesh subsided, Venil snatched a bowl for himself. During this mad scramble for dining implements, the woman produced from somewhere a metal pail filled with a white pasty substance that could only be Gant’s aforementioned gruel.
Each man reached out through the bars with his bowl and when the pail was near enough, dipped the bowl into the gruel, scooping a portion into his bowl and retreating to the back of the cage. In this fashion, each man served himself dinner. Venil found the entire process unsanitary in addition to undesirable and perhaps this was why he was one of the last of the men to scoop up some gruel into his bowl. As a result he ended up with a smaller portion than those who had been served before him.
Venil put the lip of the bowl to his mouth and tipped it back. The gruel tasted like homemade paste. He shrugged, less concerned with the portion disparity now that he’d had the chance to sample a taste of the Artemise fare. A plan had formed in his mind as he watched the women upon their return to the cage. And if things went according to that plan, then he would have no need of any further paste tasting gruel.
That night, the Artemise came for Gant, which explained why the man had been left in the cage all day, instead of being taken outside on a work detail with the other men. The Artemise women wanted him at full strength for their evening attentions, while he was in the tent playing his part in furthering the advancement of their nomadic brood.
They returned Gant to the cage the following morning, just before they began dispensing the prisoners’ morning gruel. He did not speak of the experience. Really, what was there to say, in any case, Venil thought. After the prisoners finished their bug infested repast, they were lined up and shackled before departing for the day’s work detail. Venil, however, was persuaded by the business end of a spear to stay inside the cage. He suspected this evening he was to visit the tent where Gant had spent the previous night. This might actually fit in with his plan, provided he modify it the tiniest bit.
He used the time to get his bearings. He looked around the camp, surveying its makeup. Makeshift tents jutted forth around the perimeter, surrounding the remains of a huge campfire. To his right, two more cages similar to the one in which he was housed, contained one prisoner each. The others must have been taken out to work along with those from Venil’s own cage. He looked to the nearest prisoner and the look on the man’s face confirmed his suspicions about where each of them would be spending the night. Nice to know it was a shared fate.
When the men returned to the cage at sundown and had each been released from their shackles, Venil told Gant of his plan. “I’ll back you up,” he said. “But you should know this has been tried before and it has never worked.” Venil accepted this advice in silence and joined the others in the queue of gruel scoopers.
Once they both had their food, he put a question to Gant. “If it has never worked in the past, then why are you agreeing to help me?”
Gant shrugged his shoulders as he swallowed a mouthful of gruel. A fly perched below his lower lip. “Maybe I’m just tired of it all.” He smiled. “Besides, I have a feeling about you.”
When the Artemise came for Venil that night, he was ready. A woman bearing shackles beckoned him toward her, the cage bars separating them. He moved forward and she gestured. “Arms.”
Venil stuck his arms through one of the slats between the bars and she shackled them together. He pulled his chained arms back inside the cage and the wild woman indicated he should sit. Venil dropped to his rump as she produced another set of shackles and knelt. “Now the legs.”
He pushed his legs through a space between the bars, just as he had done with his arms and felt the cold of the irons as they were secured around his ankles. That done, he pulled his legs inside the cage and stood to his full height, arms together before him. His muscles tensed and he willed them to relax. The looser he was at the moment, the better. He stood meekly before the door as the Artemise on the other side went through the motions of unlocking it. He made note of the second spear-wielding woman standing off to other woman’s side, Venil’s left.
As the first Artemise opened the door with one hand and picked up her spear with the other, Venil rushed the door, slamming into it with his shoulder, careful not to trip himself up with the chain. The door smacked the first Artemise in the face, staggering her back as Venil did a quick two-step shuffle out the open door. Before the other could react, he swung a double-fisted blow at the second woman, knocking her to the ground. Venil spun back toward the first guard as she sent up a cry of alarm.
Facing her, he saw she had recovered quickly and stood ready, with her spear leveled at him. He assumed a fighting stance and focused his thoughts. Kelsey, your ‘shaman’ might be a little distracted in a moment. If you see an opportunity, seize it. The Artemise jabbed her spear at him and he twisted out of its way, grabbed the shaft just behind the spear point and pulled it toward him, bringing the guard along with it. “Time to go, men!” he screamed as he angled the spear and shoved its end back into the woman’s jaw, causing her to release her hold on the weapon. He could hear the other men clamoring over one another to get through the now open cage door at his back.
He reversed the spear in his grip and sent the edge biting into the woman’s belly. He pulled the spear free and turned to see Gant had dispatched the other guard and retrieved her spear. The other men were running in all directions for freedom, but the crux of them were about to be confronted by more Artemise responding to the earlier cry of alarm. Things did not look too good for all those unarmed prisoners. “Gant! This way!” Venil called.
Earlier, when he’d scoped out the camp, he had noticed that
one of the tents was more heavily guarded than the others. He suspected that this was where Kelsey was being detained and that was where he and Gant were now headed. Some might say that when attempting escape from a prison of any kind, it would be most wise not to run directly into an area heavily occupied by the enemy. Some might have a point.
Venil and Gant dealt with the first three Artemise they encountered handily enough that Venil began wondering what it was that Gant had called a profession before he was captured by these wild women. When four more spear-wielding women cropped up behind those first three and their compatriots arrived behind Venil and Gant, cutting off any means of egress, the two knew that escape was not in their immediate future, no matter how great the desire.
Any luck? he thought to Kelsey.
No, came the clipped reply.
Me neither. He dropped the spear and raised his manacled hands above his head as Gant did the same.
Some good had come of the attempt, at least, Venil thought as he lay curled in a ball inside the cage, clutching his dislocated jaw with one trembling hand. Some of the men who had not stayed with the main group had escaped into the wilderness. With any luck, they would not be recaptured. At least some of the men now tasted freedom. An even larger number of men had been slain, either during the escape attempt or afterward as acts of retribution. As the instigators, Venil and Gant had both been beaten severely and then tossed back into their cage with the other survivors. Venil coughed weakly and spat blood into the dirt. “Sorry about that,” he told Gant, who was lying prone a few feet away on the cold, hard ground.
“That’s okay,” he responded. “I knew what I was getting into.”
A welcome unconsciousness rolled over Venil on the wave of his new friend’s forgiveness.
“Wake up.” Venil heard drops of water plopping onto metal above him. “Come on, wake up. We do have little time.” Venil opened his eyes and saw an unfamiliar face swim into focus above him. Then he realized the sound he had heard was not water on metal, but this woman snapping her slender fingers in front of his face to get his attention.
“Who?” he began, wondering what this woman was doing in the cage. Had the Artemise moved him while he was out of it?
“We have no time for introductions,” she said. “Not if you want to get out of here with the rest of them. Can you stand?”
Venil sat up, clutching his jaw in one hand. “Might be easier if I had both hands, but I think I can manage.”
The woman looked to Gant, who was struggling to stand as well. “Hold still.”
Gant looked a question at the woman and then, thinking better of putting it into words, did as requested. Venil watched as the woman tore a long strip of cloth from the bottom of her shirt, revealing part of a taut, tanned abdomen of which he knew he would like to see more at some other time. Taking the strip of shirt in one hand, the woman twirled it round until it was one piece of wound up cloth and tied it around Venil’s head, so that it held his dislocated jaw in place. “That will have to do for now,” she told him. “We will take better care of it later.”
She turned toward the open cage door and looked back at the gathered men before stepping through it. “Follow me, and be very quiet.”
As they crept out the door, Venil noted the still form of the Artemise guard on the ground. He did not see any blood, so he assumed the woman was merely unconscious. He hoped that when she awoke it was with a dreadful headache. They made their way around the cage, and he could see that the other two cages had already been emptied of their prisoners. Good to know that this was a tried and true method of escape. They followed the woman out of the camp and down the hill upon which it was based.
Venil did not want to leave without Kelsey, but he knew that he would be of little use to her in his current condition. And it seemed this mystery woman had some knowledge of the Artemise camp. Perhaps she might aid in his rescue of Kelsey, once he was clear of the camp. Kelsey should be safe for another few days, in any case.
As he followed the woman and the other freed men through the wilds of the wasteland, Venil tried contacting Kelsey, but found he could not establish communication with her. He knew the Artemise would not have killed the girl before fulfilling the requirements of their lunar ritual, so he figured he must be out of range of her abilities. Trudging through the wilderness, he admired the muscular movements of the mystery woman’s body from the rear. Her legs, what he could see of them in the moonlight, were toned and well-formed and seemed to stretch forever until reaching that pleasant curve between them and her back.
This area, too, was fit, and Venil felt a stirring of lust that made him envious of the woman’s tight breeches. A loose shirt, torn along the bottom, covered her upper half, but Venil suspected if he were lucky enough to see it removed, he would find what was underneath to be as well maintained as the rest of her. Her dark hair spilled down past her shoulders, stretching to the small of her back. It had been a while, but Venil was not starved for a woman. For this woman, however, he was ravenous. And yet, he was currently in no condition to act upon these feelings, however intense they might be.
The group plodded down a grassy mound and trailing behind the woman, came to the opening of a cave. “We should be safe in here until morning,” she told them. “You will find clothing of assorted sizes just inside.” Then she stood aside, observing as the men began filing into the rocky recess.
After finding a set of clothing that fit, rather loosely, Venil sidled up to the woman and for a time, stood next to her watching the other men. Then he turned to her, trying to smile and failing miserably thanks to his dislocated jaw. “Never did get your name.”
She gave him a funny look, then noticed his jaw. “Oh, right,” she said, holding up a finger. “Wait here. We will get you fixed up right quick.” She turned toward the stream of men, from which Gant had stepped forth when he saw Venil standing to one side. The woman pointed to Gant as she neared him. “You know this man, do you not?”
Gant looked to Venil and nodded at the woman.
“Come with me, please.” She led him to Venil and then looked to the wounded man. “I am going to pop your jaw back into place,” she told Venil. “It is going to hurt. Quite a bit.”
Venil nodded his understanding.
“I do not want to get hurt by any thrashing around,” she said, turning to Gant. “You need to hold his arms. He looks like a tough guy, but I would rather not take any chances.”
Gant stood behind Venil, locking the man’s arms in a hold.
The woman removed the cloth from around Venil’s head and jaw, holding the loose jaw in one hand. Once that was done, with her free hand she gripped the side of his head, reaching her splayed fingers back for support. “Okay, big guy. On three. And I would appreciate it if you do not spit at me.” Her grip on his jaw tightened. “One, two . . .”
She pushed the loose side of the jaw upward, scraping bone against bone until the jaw snicked into place with an ear shattering pop. Venil did not hear it, though he certainly felt it. He screamed in agony and strained his arms against the locked limbs of the shirtless Gant. The pain lessened by degrees until it faded entirely and his swimming vision returned.
He opened and closed his mouth a few times, to be sure that the jaw worked as it should. Then he managed a smile. “Thank you,” he said. “For the jaw and the rescue.”
She patted Venil on the shoulder as Gant relinquished his hold on the other man’s arms. “You are welcome, big guy.”
“My name is Venil.” He reached a hand out to rest on Gant’s shoulder. “And this is Gant. Who do we have the pleasure of thanking for our rescue?”
“You may call me Raelynn.”
“A pleasure to make your acquaintance, Raelynn,” said Gant.
“And a bit of pain for me,” joked Venil. “Raelynn, you seem practiced at this rescue. Is it something you have had experience with before?”
She nodded. “You are not the first prisoners I have freed from a Artemise camp.”
“Then perhaps you can be of further assistance.”
She looked at Venil. “Your freedom and health are not enough?”
Venil reached a hand to the back of his neck. “In the camp, there is a young girl I would like to free.”
She looked him over. “Keep it in your pants, Venil. You will live longer.”
“No,” he objected. “It is not like that.”
“No. She was charged to my care. I was leading her and another to Solara when we were captured.”
“And this other?”
“An initiate from Idastil. She was killed when we were taken.”
“I too, head for Solara. That is where I am taking these men. Give me her name and I will carry the news for you.”
“The initiate’s name is Jade.”
“And the girl?”
“Will be rescued. You do not need her name.”
“Look, I know this may be difficult for you to hear, but I have a responsibility to these men. I have to get them safely to Solara and I can’t jeopardize that by going after your ‘charge.’ Just give me her name. I will tell the elders in Solara that she is dead. And if she is not already dead, she soon will be. Or worse yet, if she is young enough, they may raise her as one of their own.”
“We both are headed for the same destination. What could it hurt to join forces?” He crossed his arms. A vast silence bridged the gap between them. “If you will not help me, then I will do it on my own.” He stared into her aquamarine eyes. At any other time, he might find them entrancing.
She crossed her arms under her ample breasts and raised her eyebrows.
“There is something else,” he admitted under her questing. “She is a Senser. In three days, the eve of the Artemise lunar ritual shall come to pass. She will be sacrificed and Solara will feel the loss. We must save her.”
She frowned at Venil, uncrossing her arms. He could tell he had found a soft spot in her tough veneer, though she continued to act otherwise. “What makes you think I care for the welfare of the cities?”
He stretched an arm toward the black mouth of the cave entrance, palm facing upward. “You bring these men from various Artemise camps to the cities, adding to their population and workforces. These are not the actions of an uncaring soul.”
She kicked at a rock on the ground and feigned extreme interest in a fixed spot in the dirt that stretched between them. Shrugging her shoulders, she responded, “They have got to go somewhere.”
“Help me with this,” he said. “With your knowledge of the camps and my link to Kelsey, it will not be so danger filled as you think.”
Her head snapped up and as Venil noted the surprised look on Gant’s face as he realized his mistake.
“What do you mean, link?” she asked.
An outrush of breath escaped him. “As I said, the girl is a Senser. She has the ability to speak with her mind. When we get close enough to the camp, she and I will be able to converse with one another in this manner. We can use this to great adavantage.”
“Personally, I think those Sensers are freaks,” Gant said. “But you are my friend, Venil, so I will help you with this.” He held out his arm.
Venil took it into his own and gave the other man’s arm a firm squeeze. “Thank you, Gant.” Then he turned to Raelynn. “And what of you?”
“I think I can help you,” she said. “But we will have to move soon. They will be too fortified during the day and as you said, the ritual is in just a few days. I do still have a responsibility to these men, though,” she pointed to the mass of men. “They cannot wait around while we see to your girl Senser. Thus, I have a condition that must be met if you desire my assistance.”
The Great Exodus will continue in Issue 15.
About the Author
Steve Coate is a speculative fiction writer who lives in sunny South Florida, where he struggles daily for dominion of the keyboard with his possessive tabby, Bigby. His fiction has also appeared in Bloodbond magazine, Ray Gun Revival, the Nightfall Publications anthology From Shadows & Nightmares, Stupefying Stories: SHOWCASE, and The Western Online. For updates on his fiction, follow Steve on Twitter @stevecoate. Readers can also drop him a line at [email protected]