Read an Excerpt
By Grahame-Smith, Seth
Grand Central Publishing Copyright © 2012 Grahame-Smith, Seth
All right reserved.
The magic of Old Testament times is coming to an end.
Great floods, mystical beasts, and parting seas have given way to the empires of man. Many believe that God has abandoned the world—most of which is ruled by Rome and its new emperor, Augustus Caesar.
One of many Roman provinces, Judea (in modern Israel), is ruled by a cruel puppet king named Herod the Great, who—although sickly and dying—fiercely clings to power through murder and intimidation. And he has reason to be paranoid, for the Old Prophecies tell of the imminent birth of a messiah—a King of the Jews—who will topple all the other kingdoms of the world…
Last Stand of the Antioch Ghost
“No king is saved by the size of his army; no warrior escapes by his great strength.”
A herd of ibex grazed on a cliff high above the Judean Desert—each of their tiny, antelope-like bodies dwarfed by a pair of giant, curved horns. A welcome breeze blew across their backs as they searched for what little shrubbery there was here in the great big nothing, each of them pushing their hot, cracked noses across the hot, cracked earth, gnawing at whatever succulent bits of green had managed to push their way through.
One ibex—tempted by the sight of a few lonely blades of grass on the cliff’s edge—grazed apart from the others, closer to the bone-shattering drop than even they dared go. These blades it now pulled at oh so carefully with its teeth. Its cloven hooves clacked against the loose rocks of its perch as it shifted its weight, sending the occasional pebble tumbling hundreds of feet into the valley below. Ten million years of geological aspirations undone in seconds.
Miles to the north of where it chewed this hard-earned meal, a carpenter was making his way toward Jerusalem in the blistering heat of midday—his head swimming through stories of plagues and floods to keep the thirst from driving him mad, his young, very pregnant wife asleep on the donkey behind him. And though the ibex would never know this—though its life, like the lives of all ibexes, would go completely unnoticed and unappreciated in the annals of history—it was about to become the sole living witness to a truly extraordinary sight.
Perhaps it was a glint in the corner of its eye, a tiny, almost imperceptible vibration beneath its hooves. Whatever the reason, the ibex was suddenly compelled to lift its head and take in the sight of the vast desert below. There, off in the distance, it spotted a small cloud of dust moving steadily across the twisted beiges and browns. This in and of itself was hardly unusual. Dust clouds sprang up all the time, dancing randomly across the desert like swirling spirits. But two things made this cloud unique: one, it was moving in a perfectly straight line, from right to left. Two, it was being followed by a second, much larger cloud.
At least it looked that way. The ibex had no idea if clouds of dust could, in fact, chase each other. It only knew that they were to be avoided if at all possible, since they were murder on the eyes. Still chewing, it turned back to see if the others had spotted it. They hadn’t. They were all grazing away without a care in the world, noses to the ground. The ibex turned back and considered this strange phenomenon a moment longer. Then, convinced there was no danger to itself or the herd, it went back to its meal. The two clouds moved silently, steadily in the distance.
By the time it yanked another blade of grass out of the rock with its teeth, the ibex had forgotten they’d ever existed.
Balthazar couldn’t see a damned thing.
He rode his camel across the desert valley, kicking its sides like mad, his eyes the only things visible through the shemagh he wore to fight off the sun and the odor of the beast beneath him. Two overstuffed saddlebags hung off either side of his animal, and a saber hung from his belt, swinging wildly as they galloped along, kicking up the desert behind them. Balthazar turned back to see how close his pursuers were, but all he saw was the Cloud. The same, massive, relentless cloud that had been chasing him since Tel Arad. The cloud that made it impossible to tell how many men were after him. Dozens? Hundreds? There was no way to know. It was, at present, a cloud of undetermined wrath.
From the direction of that cloud there came a faint whistling, almost like the movement of wind through a ravine. At first it was just a single note, its pitch bending steadily lower and growing louder with each second. This note was joined by another and another, until the air behind Balthazar’s head was a chorus of faint whistles—each of them starting soprano and tilting tenor as they grew louder, closer. Just as Balthazar realized what they were, the arrows began to strike the earth behind him.
They’re shooting from horseback, he thought.
None of the arrows had come close enough to cause concern. Balthazar wasn’t surprised. Any experienced archer knew that firing an arrow from a galloping horse was akin to saying a prayer with a bow. Even at twenty yards, you had little chance of hitting your target. From this distance, it was hopeless—a sign of either desperation or anger. Balthazar didn’t think the Judeans were desperate. They were furious, and they were going to take that fury out on his skull if they caught up to him. After all, the untold legions in that cloud weren’t just chasing the thief who’d made off with a fortune of stolen goods, and they weren’t after the murderer who’d killed a handful of their comrades…
They were trying to catch “the Antioch Ghost.”
It was a nickname born of the only two things the Romans knew about him: one, that he was Syrian by birth, in which case it was a good bet that he’d grown up in Antioch; and two, that he had a knack for slipping into the homes of the wealthy and making off with their riches without being seen or heard. Other than those scant facts and a rough physical description, the Romans had nothing—not his age, not even his real name. And while “the Antioch Ghost” wasn’t particularly inspired as nicknames went, it wasn’t all that bad, either. Balthazar had to admit, he enjoyed seeing it among the “known criminals” painted on the side of public buildings—always in red, always in Latin: Reward! The Antioch Ghost—Enemy of Rome! Thief of the Eastern Empire! Sure, he hadn’t achieved the infamy of a Hannibal or a Spartacus, but he was something of a minor celebrity in his little corner of the world.
There was a second chorus of whistling, followed by a second strike of arrows behind him. Balthazar turned and watched the last of them fall. While still too far away to cause concern, this volley hadn’t been quite as hopeless as the last. They’re getting closer, he thought.
“Faster, stupid!” he yelled at the stubborn beast, kicking its sides with his heels.
If only he could get out of their sight for a minute or two, change direction. Even now, with an indeterminate number of Judean soldiers chasing him through the middle of nowhere, with only a tired, pungent camel and a dull sword to protect him, and even though his pursuers were only two minutes behind him at best, Balthazar still had a chance. He’d spent years memorizing a network of caves to hide out in, shortcuts across barren lands, the best places to scrounge up food and water on the run. He’d trained himself how to survive. How to carry on in times when the whole world seemed hell-bent on snuffing him out. Times like now.
He sensed his camel slowing down and gave it another swift kick in its side.
C’mon…just a little longer…
The beast had struggled to keep pace with the weight of all that treasure on its back, and Balthazar had been forced to toss some of his heavier spoils overboard as they’d fled Tel Arad. The sight of all that wealth skipping across the sand had nearly made him sick to his stomach. The thought of some lucky shepherd stumbling upon his spoils made his jaw clench and his teeth grind. There was nothing more enraging, more unjust than denying a man the hard-earned fruits of his labor, especially when those fruits were made of solid gold. Balthazar had briefly considered cutting off one of his own limbs to shed an equal amount of weight. But the long-term prospects of a one-armed marauder were limited.
“Faster!” he cried again, as if this would spur on the camel any more than the thousand sharp kicks he’d delivered to its sides. It was still losing steam, and once again, Balthazar was forced to consider the unthinkable: jettisoning more of his hard-earned treasure.
He reached into one of the large saddlebags and fished around until his hands found something that felt heavy. He almost couldn’t bear to look as he pulled it out into the sunlight. There, in his hand, was a solid silver drinking cup—nearly the size of a bowl. Intricately carved and adorned with precious stones. It was a stunning piece, made from the finest materials with the finest artistry. It was also incredibly heavy. Balthazar held the chalice out to his side. Then, with his eyes averted and his stomach churning, he let it slip from his fingers. He turned away to spare himself the sight of it rolling across the desert floor and gave the camel another swift kick in retaliation.
C’mon, stupid…just a little longer…
It couldn’t be thirsty. A camel could drink forty gallons in one go, and its body could cling to that water for weeks. Its piss came out as a thick syrup of pure waste. Its shit was dry enough to use as firewood, for the love of God. No…it wasn’t thirsty. Not a chance. Tired? Unlikely. Camels had been known to live fifty years or more. And while Balthazar had gotten only a brief look at the face of this particular beast in the process of stealing it from a very unhappy Bedouin, he guessed that it was no more than fifteen years old. Twenty, tops. Still in the prime of its wretched life.
Just a little longer, you son of a bitch…
No, this camel was just being stubborn. And stubbornness could be corrected with a firm kick or two. Balthazar reckoned the beast could flat-out gallop for another hour. Maybe two. And if that estimate held up—if this camel could be coaxed through its stubbornness—then he had a real shot at making Jerusalem. And if he made Jerusalem, he was home free. There, he’d be able to blend in with the masses that were no doubt choking the streets for the census. He’d be able to disappear. Trade his stolen goods for coins, clothes, food—certainly a new camel.
Balthazar may have been a thief, but he deplored risk. Risk got men killed. Risk was unnecessary. When a man was prepared, when he was in control, things usually went according to plan. But the minute he left something to chance? The minute he trusted in partners, or instinct, or luck? That’s when everything went to hell. That’s why he was being chased across the desert by a giant cloud atop a stinking, unmotivated beast. Because he’d taken a risk. Because he’d committed the unforgivable sin of trusting his instincts.
As much as it irked him, as much as it went against everything in his nature, Balthazar had to accept that the outcome of his current predicament was beyond his control. He could kick and curse all he wanted…
It was up to the camel now.
It had all seemed so perfect. All the enticements had been there: a loosely guarded stash of expensive items, a corrupt nobleman, a populace being taken advantage of by the Romans. A more direct route to Balthazar’s heart couldn’t have been charted by a mapmaker.
Location had been another enticement. The city of Tel Arad was more than fifty miles south of Jerusalem. And the farther you were from Jerusalem, the less likely you were to encounter troops, whether they were King Herod’s Judean troops or Rome’s elite soldiers. And while Tel Arad still paled in comparison to Judea’s great city, it was home to a new, impressive temple of its own. To the noncriminal, that may have seemed like a trivial detail. But to Balthazar, it was everything. Temples meant travelers and money changers. They meant that a man with a strange appearance or accent was less likely to draw attention and that someone looking to trade stolen goods for gold and silver coins could do so with ease. Temples were a thief’s best friend.
Tel Arad had been settled thousands of years earlier, destroyed and rebuilt more times than any of the locals cared to remember. And for thousands of years, it had never grown beyond the rank of “desolate village.” But times had changed. Empires had sprung up on either side of the once-forgotten settlement and transformed it into a thriving center of trade. Suddenly Ted Arad was the central point between Roman goods heading east and Arabian goods heading west toward Egypt, the Mediterranean, and, ultimately, Rome—and its status had been steadily upgraded to “small city.”
The strongest sign of its growing importance had come only a year earlier, when Rome had decided to dispatch a governor—Decimus Petronius Verres—to look after the little city. Officially, Decimus was there to make sure Tel Arad adhered to the traditions and upheld the virtues of Roman life. Unofficially, and more importantly, he was there to put troublemakers to death and make sure the locals paid their taxes on time.
Decimus, for his part, had been crushed when he learned of the assignment. It had been presented as an “honor,” of course. He’d been “handpicked by Augustus himself to represent the empire in the East.” But Decimus knew what it really was: a castration. A punishment for taking sides against the emperor one too many times in the senate.
He’d privately sobbed when he’d heard the news. How could they do this to him? For one thing, the desert was no place for a Roman, especially one of his considerable weight and fair complexion. For another, he had been perfectly happy where he was: safely, quietly ensconced in the suburbs of Rome, surrounded by the trappings of reasonable, if not exorbitant wealth. He was in his fifties—far too old to be picking up his entire life and traipsing around in the heat. Rome was the center of the world. Home to all the entertainment and enticement a man could want. The desert, by contrast, was a death sentence. But the emperor had spoken. And castration or not, Decimus had no choice but to go.
Even the exiled members of Roman nobility weren’t expected to travel without the comforts of home. Shortly after his arrival in Tel Arad, Decimus ordered a walled compound built to his exact specifications—a scaled-up, fortified replica of the villa he owned in Rome. The same painter was brought in to re-create his favorite frescos, the same artisans to lay the mosaics on his floors tile by tile. The same formal garden and fountains dominated the courtyard at its center. The same slaves had made the journey to serve Decimus by day and the same concubines to serve him by night.
The finished compound was an impressive sight. A gleaming symbol of Roman superiority hidden from the public behind ten-foot walls. It sat atop a hill overlooking the northwest quarter of the little city, looking down on the temple and the bazaar below, where, as Decimus said, “the braying of animals, paying of merchants, and praying of men join together in a relentless chorus that deprives me of even a moment’s peace.”
But it wasn’t all bad in Tel Arad. It had taken some time, but Decimus had warmed to his new city. Not because of its cultural riches or natural beauty—it had neither. Not because of the local women—he’d imported his own. No, he’d taken a shine to his new home because it was, politely speaking, a garbage heap.
In Rome, there was always someone more powerful, someone who had to be placated or paid off. Things like treason and treachery bore very real, very severe consequences. Rome was a city of laws. But the desert was lawless. In Tel Arad, Decimus was the only one who had to be placated. His pocket was the only one that needed to be lined. He was the law. It was a role he’d never had the opportunity to play in Rome, and it was one he found himself relishing more by the day.
As the governor of this godforsaken little sandpit, he had the power—indeed, the responsibility—to make sure the Arabian goods on their way to the West were up to “Roman standards,” a term that had a very loose and ever-changing definition but that could be more or less summed up as: “things Decimus didn’t feel like keeping for himself.”
He deputized a group of local men to serve as his “inspectors,” then turned them loose on the bazaar, where they conducted so-called quality checks at will. These inspectors targeted everything from jewelry to pottery to fabric to food. And if an item appeared to be of “lesser quality” or was “suspected of being a forgery”? It was confiscated and brought back to the governor’s compound for further inspection. There, Decimus had the final say on whether the item would be returned or whether it would be held indefinitely, in a room he’d specially built for the purpose. In the six months since the inspections had begun, not a single merchant could recall having an item returned. And if they complained? If they caused even the slightest trouble? Decimus made sure they never set foot in his bazaar again.
Now he was the one with the power to exile.
With that many stolen valuables stockpiled in one place, it hadn’t been long before Balthazar had caught wind of it. The rumors had reached him through the usual channels, and they’d been conveyed with the usual hyperbolic flair:
“Never has there been such a thieving Roman! He sits atop a pile of riches that would make the gods envious!”
And while these rumors usually amounted to nothing, even the remote possibility of stealing a little stolen treasure, and embarrassing a Roman governor in the process, warranted a firsthand look. And so Balthazar had set out from Damascus, where he’d been chasing another rumor. The one he’d been chasing for years. The only one that really matters. He’d ridden south through Bosra, avoiding the roads as much as possible. And on the fifth night of his journey, he’d seen the torches of Tel Arad burning in the distance and the grand white walls of the governor’s compound above them.
The next day, he’d asked around the bazaar, hoping to verify some of the stories that had reached him up north. To his surprise, not only did they check out, but also the value of the confiscated goods was far greater than he’d imagined. Gold chalices, silver bracelets, rare perfumes and spices—all of it taken by this “Decimus.” All of it locked away behind his walls.
It seemed that this was one of those rare instances where the truth was even bigger than the legend.
Balthazar had his motive. Now all he needed was an opportunity. He surveyed the governor’s compound from afar, taking note of how many guards there were, when and how they patrolled the grounds, what kind of weapons they carried. Although Tel Arad was a Roman province, and its locals paid Roman taxes, the Roman Army couldn’t be bothered to come this far east—not to babysit a governor who’d fallen out of the emperor’s favor, anyway. Decimus had been forced to settle for a handful of soldiers from the less-impressive Judean Army, on loan from Herod the Great, to guard his compound. The Judean troops may not have been as professional or well equipped as their Roman counterparts, but they were nothing to take lightly. Storming the compound alone was out of the question.
Balthazar needed a way in. A way through its defenses. Two days after arriving in Tel Arad, he found one.
Her name was Flavia.
At seventeen, she should have been in Rome, enjoying the trappings of wealth and youth in the world’s great city, living it up with the other sons and daughters of the ruling class. Instead, her father had dragged her to the desert of the Eastern Empire and left her to wither in the heat. With nothing to do. No one to talk to but concubines and slaves.
Balthazar had watched her for three days. Every morning, she walked down the hill from her father’s compound, accompanied by a pair of Judean soldiers. For the next few hours, she wandered up and down the network of crowded streets that made up the bazaar, buying everything from silks to harps to figs, either unaware or undeterred by the fact that any of these goods could be had for free back at her father’s compound. Then, at midday, she climbed the hill and disappeared behind the compound’s walls, not to be seen again until the following day.
When Balthazar finally made his move, he’d done so using the oldest, easiest trick in the book. So easy, that he was almost ashamed of himself.
“Excuse me,” he said.
Flavia turned, as did the soldiers at her side. She was a curly haired blonde—a rarity in this part of the world—with a full figure, a pretty face, and a lightly freckled nose, also a rarity. Not his type, but not bad at all.
“I believe you dropped this.”
He offered his closed hand, which was promptly grabbed by one of the bodyguards. Balthazar smiled and opened his fingers, revealing a beaded bracelet inside. The bracelet Flavia’s mother had given to her before she died.
The bracelet that Balthazar had stolen off of her wrist moments before.
Flavia studied it in disbelief. They always do. She wondered how on earth she could’ve dropped something so dear to her. Shooing her guards aside, she thanked Balthazar profusely and introduced herself with an extended hand. “Flavia,” she said.
“Sargon,” Balthazar replied, taking it.
“Sargon…would you care to join me for a walk around the bazaar?”
Now I hesitate…my face flushed with modesty. Yes, I’ll join you for a walk around the bazaar. But I’m going to make you believe it was the furthest thing from my mind…
“Come,” she said, sensing his hesitation. “Let me buy you something. A reward for your good deed.”
“Oh, well…I don’t know…”
Of course I do. But now I hesitate some more. Not too long—not long enough for you to lose interest. Just long enough for you to believe I’d say no. And then, the instant I see that belief in your eyes, I answer—
“I guess I can, but…your company is the only reward I need.”
And you silently swoon…as I prepare to win you over with a lifetime’s worth of lies.
Flavia and “Sargon” walked for hours, telling each other everything. Two lonely spirits who’d finally—miraculously—found kinship in this faraway land. And though her bodyguards eyed this Sargon with suspicion, though they would’ve liked to rough him up and warn him off, they knew better than to cross the only daughter of Decimus Petronius Verres.
Three nights and three trips around the bazaar later, Flavia snuck Balthazar into the compound and into her bedchamber…just as he’d known she would.
The next two weeks had been fun. More importantly, they’d been fruitful.
Each night as Flavia slept, Balthazar rose silently from her bed and went to work—slowly, methodically sneaking his way through the slumbering compound. Mapping it in his mind until he knew its every corner by heart. Until he knew the sleeping habits of every slave and the position of every guard. Until he knew how to walk from one side to the other without setting foot in the glow of the torches. And most of all, until he had examined every confiscated item in the governor’s fabled storeroom, which he’d found on the first night, and which, like everything in Tel Arad, had exceeded his expectations.
And on the night that Balthazar felt he could know no more, he’d filled two large saddlebags—the most he could reasonably carry and still move quickly if he had to—with predetermined items chosen for their value-to-weight ratios. Bags stuffed, he’d snuck back along his carefully rehearsed route toward the compound’s rear gate. The one that was always unmanned for a ten-minute window at this time of night, thanks to a guard with a phenomenally regular constitution.
He crept along in the dark, through the garden—twenty-seven steps—past the fountain—another ten but veering slightly left—then a sharp right turn at the sundial. After that, it was just thirty steps in a straight line to the gate. Thirty steps to free—
Balthazar nearly let out a yelp as he spun in the direction of the voice. At first, he thought he’d come face-to-face with a ghost. A translucent white being seemed to float toward him out of the darkness, barely perceivable in the light of the moon. He stood, frozen, as it moved closer…until Balthazar saw what it really was: a white sleeping gown, fluttering in the warm night air.
“Flavia…,” he whispered.
“You’re…you’re a thief,” she said.
What gave you that idea? Is it the two huge bags of stolen treasure I’m carrying out here in the middle of the night?
“You used me.”
Yes, I used you, and I’d use you again. And who are you to feel used, anyway? You’re a Roman. All your kind does is use. All you do is rape, and burn, and steal, and murder.
“No,” said Balthazar. “Flavia, listen to m—”
All she had to do was scream and the guards would come running. And when that happened, the exciting trouble currently making Balthazar’s heart pound against the back of his ribs would become real trouble—blood trouble—in a hurry.
On the other hand, she could just as easily let him slip away into the night. No one would ever suspect her unwitting part in the robbery. Her chastity would never be called into question, and Balthazar would be halfway to anywhere by morning, with a promise to return and “take you away, Flavia—when the time is right, take you away from all of this so we can be together.” A promise he would have no intention of keeping.
“Flavia,” he said. “Listen to me, okay? Yes…yes, I was taking these. Taking them from your father’s storeroom. But you have to believe me—I have good reason to take them! Your father stole these things from the people of Tel Arad! Poor people! Honest men! I couldn’t stand by and watch them suffer. The truth is, I was stealing them, yes. Stealing them from the man who stole them first. Stealing them back so that I could return them to their rightful owners! Aren’t you always talking about how cruel and selfish your father is? Well here, Flavia! Here’s the proof!”
I’m getting through to her. Now make it personal…turn her mind away from the theft.
“And…and yes,” he continued, “I know I should have told you first. But I didn’t want to get you involved. What if something had gone wrong? What if you’d gotten in trouble? I wouldn’t have been able to live with myself, Flavia. You’re too good for this.”
“I…I don’t know…”
Yes, you do.
“Flavia, I swear on our love…on my soul—everything I say is true.”
She stood there for a moment, conflicted and confused. A victim of youth and inexperience and a deep desire—a need—to believe that everything he was saying was, in fact, true.
“Please, Flavia, there isn’t much time.…”
I could always give her a knock on the head. If it came down to it, just a little knock on the head. Not enough to really hurt her, but enough to let me get the hell out of here.
But Balthazar didn’t think that would be necessary. His instincts were beginning to tell him this was going to be okay—and he decided to trust them.
She’s not going to scream. She hates her father. Yes, she hates her father, hates the fact that he brought her here. Besides…we’ve shared everything. Our deepest secrets. Our deepest love. And yes, that’s all bullshit—but not to her. There’s no way she’d give me up. She loves me. No…I’m a man with a knack for knowing things, and I know she’s not going to scream. I’ve never been more certain of anything in my life.
It was clear he wasn’t going to make Jerusalem. The camel had been gradually slowing down over the past hour. And as much as Balthazar kicked and cursed, it wouldn’t pick up the pace. This wasn’t stubbornness…he’d stolen a dud.
Balthazar knew of a good-sized village just north of Jerusalem—Bethel, if he remembered correctly. Or Beit El. Or whatever the hell they called it. The one that sounds like “Bethlehem” but isn’t. It didn’t matter. He knew it was there, some eight miles ahead, and it would have to do. With his camel fading fast, he pointed its nose in the village’s direction. There was still a chance. He could still get away, as long as the beast held up.
What’s that story the Jews tell? The one about the menorah that had enough oil for only one night but burned for eight? That’s my camel…only enough fuel left for one mile. If it lasts eight, it’ll be a miracle.
Miracle or not, the camel made it, and Balthazar galloped into Bethel (he’d been right the first time) only a minute or so ahead of the untold menace behind him. It was one of the nicer satellites that orbited Jerusalem. A small village of fewer than 2,000 people where many Jewish noblemen chose to escape the noise and bustle of the city with their families. There were no inns to accommodate travelers, no massive temple spewing sacrificial smoke or bazaar spewing noise and fragrances. And while the census was currently packing the streets of Jerusalem only eight miles away, you’d hardly know there was a census looking at Bethel. Fewer than ten people took note of him as he galloped into the village’s small central square.
Balthazar brought the camel to a stop, which it was all too happy to do, and leapt to the ground. He pulled the half-empty saddlebags off its back, threw both of them over his left shoulder, and gave the camel a firm smack on its hindquarters. He couldn’t have it standing around. God knows how many soldiers were about to come riding into the village with orders to find and kill him at all costs. If they saw the camel, they’d have a pretty good idea where to start looking.
“Go! Get outta here!”
It didn’t budge. He smacked it again.
It groaned deeply, knelt forward on its spindly legs, then fell over on its side with a ground-shaking thud—all 1,200 pounds of it.
Balthazar took a moment to consider this. In retrospect, maybe he had ridden it a bit too hard. And now that he got a better look, it wasn’t nearly as young as he’d thought. Not even close to fifteen or twenty. In fact, it was one of the oldest camels he’d ever seen. Come to think of it…it was a miracle they’d made it this far.
Balthazar didn’t know what to say. Partly because he was pressed for time, but mostly because sincerity wasn’t his strong suit, he settled on, “Sorry.”
Then, the grieving period over, he ran like hell.
He knew the villagers would keep him safe. They hated the Romans just as much as he did. Okay, so these aren’t actual Roman troops chasing me—they’re Judeans. But really, when you get right down to it, is there a difference? They all take their orders from Rome, just like Herod the Great, that lying, festering, murderous puppet. If there was one thing the Jews hated more than Augustus Caesar, it was the client king who ruled Judea for him. And while Balthazar wasn’t a Jew per se, he was certainly no friend of Herod. That had to count for something, right? The enemy of my enemy?
He was the Antioch Ghost, and people loved a celebrity. Even a minor one.
No, the villagers would take pity on him. They would keep him safe and hidden when the army came kicking down their doors any minute now. And if pity wasn’t enough, then bribing them with a share of his remaining treasure would make up the difference.
Balthazar ran across the square, his bags half full of twice-stolen gold and silver, frankincense and silk, his face still covered by the shemagh. He was headed for the largest building in sight—the only one with a second story and one of the few made from brick. The building had an arched roof and small, glass-paned windows along its eastern and western faces, an extravagance rarely seen outside of Rome. And though Balthazar couldn’t see the source, a column of white smoke rose from behind the building. There wasn’t much strategy behind his choosing it. A bigger building offered more hiding places. And more hiding places meant a greater chance of survival.
But as soon as he crossed the threshold, Balthazar knew he was a dead man.
He had to be dead…for this was surely heaven. There were wet, naked women everywhere. Beautiful. Bare. Steam rising off of their glistening bodies, the vapors glowing in the rays of sunlight that streamed through the glass above.
An arched ceiling peaked twenty feet overhead, its smooth surface painted to resemble olive trees reaching toward a cloudy sky. The bath itself, which took up most of the room, was lined with mosaic tiles. Mosaic tiles and the naked bodies of fifteen women. Women who were currently staring at the dusty man with a covered face and large bags over his shoulder. The man who had no business being in the women’s bath.
This was no Flavia situation. There was no question in Balthazar’s mind that these women were about to start screaming unless he acted quickly. Shaking himself back into focus, he brought a finger to his lips—shhhh—and in as nonthreatening a voice as he could manage, said, “A thousand pardons…”
He pulled the shemagh down, revealing his face—a handsome mix of sunburn and stubble, a prominent scar on his right cheek in the shape of an X. He gave them a smile. Charming, reassuring. Even a bit dashing, he suspected. It was a smile he’d spent hours practicing in the reflective waters of the Orontes River, and it was, if he didn’t mind saying so, one of his stronger assets.
“I,” he continued, “am the Antioch Ghost.”
Was that the twinkle of recognition in some of their eyes?
“I’m just looking for a place to hide from Herod’s men. Once they’re gone, I’ll be on my way without another word. You have nothing to fear, my sisters—I promise you.”
They didn’t scream.
People love a celebrity.
Short of his remaining treasure, Balthazar would’ve given anything in the world to stay and soak in this sight a little longer, but he could hear the rumble of horses’ hooves growing near outside. Time to disappear. Certain that he and the women had reached an understanding, he proceeded as rapidly and respectfully as possible across the room, toward a row of women’s robes hanging on the opposite wall. Enough of them to hide a man and a pair of saddlebags behind, no problem.
It was perfect. The soldiers wouldn’t dare intrude on the privacy of bathing women. Nor would the women likely run into the streets and tattle without their clothes. Balthazar could hear the muffled sounds of orders being shouted outside, the clanging of swords and armor as men fanned out. Seconds later, three Judean soldiers entered. Balthazar watched as the men had the same sequence of reactions he’d had: shock, followed immediately by embarrassment, followed immediately by excitement.
One of the soldiers regained his composure enough to speak: “Pardon us…”
Go ahead, you dog. Go ahead and ask them if they’ve seen a man come through here. My sisters won’t say a word. If anything, they’ll tell you to go to hell.
“Have you seen—”
Balthazar’s heart sank as every last woman pointed toward his hiding place in unison.
They didn’t even let him finish the question…
So here it was. After a day in the desert, a dead camel, and a fortune in abandoned spoils, it would come to this.
Balthazar was an exceptional thief. An excellent aggravator and proven survivor. But what he excelled at, what he was truly gifted at, was taking human lives with his sword. This wasn’t a point of pride. Well, maybe just a little. But in general, he measured success in treasure, not blood. “Success,” he was fond of saying, “is stealing a fortune without drawing your sword. Failure is a pile of bodies and no profit.”
The three soldiers drew their swords and started across the room, toward the row of hanging robes the women had pointed to.
None of them had more than a few seconds to live.
Peter could almost taste his victory. As a captain in Herod’s army, there were few priorities higher than catching the Antioch Ghost. And now it seemed he was within moments of doing just that. Such an honor would mean a promotion, of course. Money. Land. Maybe even a slave to farm it for him. Best of all, it would mean a ticket out of Tel Arad and an end to dealing with that fat, corrupt Roman, Decimus Petronius Verres.
His men were kicking in every door, searching every house in the area. The Ghost couldn’t have gone far. They’d reached the square less than a minute after he’d reached it, and he’d stupidly left a dead camel as a starting point for their search. The fact that he’d taken the time to kill it for no reason showed just how vile their fugitive really was.
Of course, some of his men doubted that their target really was the Antioch Ghost. But Peter knew. He’d been around long enough to recognize his methods. His choice of prey. Even before Flavia had described the man she’d seen robbing her father’s compound—tall and olive-skinned, with a strong build, dark hair to his shoulders, and an X-shaped scar across his right cheek—he’d known. He also knew enough to suspect that she’d left out the part about inviting him into her bed, but that wasn’t important. So when reports of a similar-looking man stealing a Bedouin’s camel came in, Peter had gathered as many soldiers as he could and given chase across the Judean Desert—choking on dust and praying that the Ghost didn’t beat him to Jerusalem, where he would’ve disappeared in seconds.
Captain Peter had asked God for a miracle, and God had answered. Here he was in Bethel. The last place he’d expected to be when he’d woken up this morning. The place he would always remember as the home of his great victory…assuming God would help him just a little more. Once again, Peter appealed to the Lord.…
Give me a sign, Heavenly Father. Help me bring this murderous thief to justice. Help me to protect the children of Israel and uphold your law, O God.
Of course, he left out the part about being rewarded with money and land and slaves, but that wasn’t important. Once again, God delivered. For no sooner had Peter finished his prayer than a sound reached his ears. A beautiful sound that meant glory was at hand:
Muffled screams coming from the bathhouse.
The head landed in the water, its eyes still blinking as it sank to the bottom, and the women finally released their pent-up screams. They climbed over each other, trying to get out of the bath as a dark red cloud spread through it.
Balthazar had waited until the advancing soldiers were within arm’s length before jumping out from behind the robes and swinging at the closest man. It’d been one of those lucky swings—one in a hundred, really—where the blade had hit the neck just right, between the vertebrae, and gone clean through. Before the first soldier’s head had even splashed down, Bal­thazar had kicked the second in the chest, knocking him onto his back. Then, just as the first screams began to echo through the room, he’d run the third soldier through the belly and out the back. He’d held the soldier—who wasn’t much more than a boy—up with his blade, watching his face drain from pink to ash white, then yanked it out, spilling his blood and entrails onto the tiled floor.
By this point, the second soldier had managed to get back to his feet. But it was only a brief stay. Balthazar swung again and cut his throat. The soldier dropped his sword and clutched at the wound—the blood pouring through his fingers in sheets. His face turned that same shade of white, wore that same mask of fear as he came to that same old, dreadful realization. The one Balthazar had seen so many other men come to: This can’t be happening. This can’t be the day I die. And then it was done. The soldier fell face-first into the bath, his blood mixing with the other’s. Naturally, this only served to elicit more screams from the already-screaming women.
Those screams will bring more soldiers any second now. Time to go.
He stood for a moment, mourning the days and weeks he’d spent working to fill those saddlebags. Mourning the lost fruits of his labor. Then, another brief grieving period over, he ran like hell again.
Failure is a pile of bodies and no profit…and this is shaping up to be a dismal failure.
Balthazar ran out the rear of the building and into the small, dirt-lined courtyard, enclosed by a six-foot wall and a wooden gate that led into the street. It was empty, save for a massive brick furnace that abutted the bathhouse. This furnace, Balthazar knew at once, was the source of the white smoke he’d seen earlier. A male slave stood beside its open iron door, stoking the raging fire inside. Its hot air channeled into a system of ducts under the bathhouse floor, keeping the water nice and warm for the nude elite. Even where Balthazar stood, ten feet away from the flames, the heat was almost too much to bear, and the noise of crackling wood and rushing air was almost deafening. As such, the slave had been oblivious to the screams coming from the bathhouse and the shouts of Judean soldiers swarming outside. But now, as he looked up from his work and found himself face-to-face with a blood-spattered, sword-wielding Syrian, he abandoned his post and ran for his life—out the open wooden gates and into the streets. Balthazar was about to do the same thing when a disembodied voice cried, “Stop where you are!”
He turned and saw a lone, boyish Judean soldier standing in the bathhouse’s rear doorway, his sword trembling in his hands.
“OVER HERE!” he shouted to his comrades. “OVER HERE! I’VE FOUND HIM!”
Balthazar wasn’t about to be held prisoner by a lone soldier with a trembling sword. And he certainly wasn’t going to wait around for others to arrive. He started toward the wooden gate.
The soldier lifted his sword and held it out in front of his body, exactly as he’d been trained to hold it. He charged at Balthazar, exactly as he’d been trained to charge. But as he prepared to run his enemy through, just as he’d been trained to do, the soldier experienced something he was entirely unequipped and unprepared to handle: Balthazar rolled onto his back and used his legs to launch him into the air—
—and into the open furnace.
The soldier heard the clang of the iron door slam behind him. He heard the latch close. He tried to stand, but there wasn’t enough room to do more than crouch. Instinct grabbed hold of him, and he tried to push the flames away with his hands, but they were already burning. He could see his flesh blistering and blackening, sliding off of his bones like wax down the side of a candle. He could feel his clothes burning against his body, becoming one with his skin, his hair melting against his scalp.
Balthazar could hear his screams through the iron door. He closed his eyes and turned away as the pounding of fists rattled it from the other side. When he opened them, there were ten soldiers standing in front of him.
“Drop your sword!” one of them yelled.
Faced with the idea of taking them all on, Balthazar placed the sword in his mouth—its blade still dripping with blood—turned back, and climbed the brick wall of the bathhouse. He could always fight his way across the rooftops, jumping from building to building until he found a horse, or a camel, or anything better than fighting ten men at once.
But when he pulled himself onto the arched roof and got to his feet, he felt the hope run out of his body like blood from a severed head. There were nearly a hundred men in the square below, plus the corpse of his miraculous camel. The Cloud of Undetermined Wrath had become a crowd of very determined soldiers, and Balthazar had to face the fact that he was completely, hopelessly surrounded.
His options were thus: He could fight to the death and take as many of these emperor-worshipping bastards as possible with him. Result? One hundred percent chance of death. Or, he could surrender and be all but certainly executed. Result? Ninety-nine percent chance of death.
It was a no-brainer.
Balthazar’s wrists had been bound firmly behind his back, his clothes meticulously searched for contraband. With a soldier holding his arms on either side, he was marched across the square to where Peter waited with a deeply satisfied smirk on his face. The victorious captain hesitated a moment, taking it all in. Relishing it. He was face-to-face with the end to all his troubles.
“The Antioch Ghost,” he said at last. “Scourge of Rome.”
“You forgot ‘plunderer of the Eastern Empire,’” said Balthazar.
Here it comes…
Sure enough, Balthazar was rewarded with a jaw-rattling punch for daring to speak. But snide remarks were just about all he had left in his arsenal. For the first time he could remember, he couldn’t see a way out. There was no hidden weapon to pull at the last second. No well-timed distraction on the way. His fate was completely out of his hands now. He’d risked everything on a 1 percent chance of survival.
“On your knees,” said Peter, drawing his sword.
Oh well…it was worth a try.
Balthazar didn’t budge, so the soldiers helped him, pushing down on his shoulders and making him kneel in the dirt. He braced himself, wondering if he would feel his spine break or feel the blade tear through his neck and throat. He wondered if he would still be able to see as his head fell to the ground and rolled across the sand. What a strange sight that would be…rolling along with no breath or body, fading to nothing as the blood ran out of me…
Balthazar examined the faces of the Judean soldiers closest to him, felt the binds on his wrists with the tips of his fingers, smelled the desert air. He looked at the sand beneath his feet and the sky above his head, taking it all in. Relishing it. Here it was, the sum of his twenty-six years. He would die on his knees in Bethel—or “Beit El.” Or whatever the hell they called it. His blood would run into the dirt. The soldiers would spit on his corpse, hack it to pieces, and leave it to the dogs. And that would be that.
Lesser men would’ve prayed at a moment like this. Would’ve begged God’s forgiveness as they were confronted by his imminent judgment. Balthazar took comfort in the fact that even now, he felt no such compulsion. Even now, in the final seconds of his life, he stood firm. And while he couldn’t help the fact that his heart was pounding harder than it ever had—which will make the blood shoot higher from my headless neck and hopefully right into this captain’s face—he refused to give his executioners the satisfaction of seeing him squirm.
Balthazar was suddenly confronted by a vision. A sea of stars dancing before him.
It had already happened.
Here he’d been, wondering about what it would be like when his head was cut off, and he’d missed the actual moment. The world narrowing, darkening into a single, distant point. Somewhere, far away—where the winds blew cool and the naked women bathed—he felt a sharp pain wash over him. And he could see something in that distant light, something moving. It was hard to make out, but yes, there was definitely something there. A man. A man leading an animal through the desert…a woman on its back…
So…this is what it’s like to die. Funny…men spend so much effort, so much anxiety trying to avoid this moment. But really, when it’s all said and done, dying isn’t so bad. In fact, it’s kind of…
The soldiers watched Balthazar slump forward, then fall to the ground, his blood running into the dirt. Peter examined the blunt handle of the sword he’d bludgeoned him with, making sure it hadn’t been soiled by flecks of blood or tufts of hair, then returned it to its sheath. He’d given the Antioch Ghost a ferocious whack on the skull, and it’d done the trick.
Balthazar was out cold.
Decimus had ordered the thief executed on the spot, his head brought back to Tel Arad to be displayed as a warning. And as much as Peter would’ve enjoyed that—as much as he would’ve liked to behead this piece of filth for slaughtering his men and making him spend an entire day in the desert—he had orders to take the Antioch Ghost alive.
And those orders came from a power higher than a Roman governor.
Twin Palace of the Puppet King
“When Herod heard this, he was frightened; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet.’”
The spirit that had once called itself “Balthazar” was swimming.
Swimming through an ocean without end, an ocean of space and time, where all that had ever been and all that ever would be converged into one. As Balthazar looked up at its infinite, shimmering surface, he could see the whole of creation reflected back, every detail of the universe—from the stars in the heavens to the smallest insects of the earth. He could see every moment of his past and future. But as he swam, his movement created ripples in these images, warping them into ever-changing suggestions of the truth: Here was the man again, leading an animal through the desert…the woman on its back. Here was the distant star in the heavens and the trees with a secret. Here was the face from his past.…
And the faster Balthazar swam, the farther into the future he went. The stronger the ripples became, the harder those reflections were to see: Here was an army of strange soldiers and a wooden beam, splitting in two. Here was a great city in flames and his brother, Abdi, as a grown man. At least that’s what it looked like.
Balthazar was suddenly aware that he was no longer swimming. He was flying—floating above the earth, as if carried by a pair of outstretched wings. The shimmering surface he’d been looking up at was now miles below him, and the whole Judean Desert—no, all of Judea—stretched out as far as his eyes could see. Deep ravines were suddenly nothing more than jagged little lines in the sand. Soaring mountains were suddenly scaled with the tip of a finger. He could see flocks of birds beneath him, flying in formation above the waters of the Jordan River. He could see the tops of clouds and the shadows they cast on the desert floor.
Balthazar had never felt such peace. Such freedom.
The tops of the clouds were growing closer. Almost close enough to skim with his outstretched feet. Closer…until the birds were above him, and Balthazar was immersed in the dense fog of the clouds themselves. And when he broke through the bottom, the desert was much closer than it had been. Close enough to make out the scattered bits of green that had managed to push their way through the rocks…and close enough to see the tiny procession of Judean soldiers and cavalry below.
The victorious captain and his hundred men, trekking from Bethel to Jerusalem with their unconscious prisoner in tow.
No, not there!
Balthazar could feel himself being pulled out of this glorious world, could feel the memory of his former self come flooding back. And he could see the prisoner beginning to come around.…
No…no, I don’t want to trade places with him! I want to stay up here! I want to st—
Balthazar woke up retching. He felt the muscles of his stomach contracting against his will and its contents climbing up his throat. Instinct told him to cup his hands, but his hands told him they were still tied behind his back. He thought about fighting the urge—thought about bearing down and commanding his muscles to obey. But it was too late. His body had taken the reins. He was just a passenger now. And so the paltry contents of his stomach were ejected over his chin, down his front, and onto the tail of the horse below. The horse he was riding backward.
This was immediately followed by a chorus of cackling and harassment on all sides. And though Balthazar couldn’t see the men who were laughing and hurling insults at him, as his eyes were still only half open and flooded with the involuntary tears of his involuntary purge, he had a pretty good idea who they were. Just like he had a pretty good idea where he was, and how he’d gotten here.
He’d been knocked out with a blow to the head. That much was obvious, thanks to the blurred vision and the skull that throbbed in a way he’d never thought skulls could throb—the pain broadcasting all the way to the tips of his fingers. And while he wasn’t able to check at the moment, on account of his hands being tied, Balthazar also suspected that the hair he felt clinging to his scalp was glued there with dried blood. He was dizzy and nauseated from the force of the blow and from dehydration—judging by his maddening thirst and cracked lips. His neck was too stiff to turn more than a few degrees in either direction.
No, they’d cracked him on the skull, no doubt about it. And while he’d been off swimming through the infinite, Balthazar’s unconscious body had been lifted onto a soldier’s horse, their waists tied together so he wouldn’t slip off. Why they’d put him on backward was a bit of a mystery. He could only assume it was some kind of insult. Something the Judean cavalry had dreamt up for its prisoners maybe. But whether it was tradition or an insult improvised at the last minute, it was effective. Besides being generally disorienting, it gave the soldiers behind him a clear shot at his face, which they used to mock him with words and gestures.
Also, having one’s nose directly above a horse’s ass wasn’t pleasant either.
But obscene gestures and the persistent smell of manure aside, Balthazar was alive. For the moment, anyway. He was almost certain they were headed toward Herod’s Palace in Jerusalem, where he’d be presented like the prize that he was and then killed in any number of terrible ways before the day was out.
If he could only turn around, Balthazar was sure he’d find Captain Peter riding at the front of the pack, grinning ear to ear, silently rehearsing his grand presentation to his king and counting the reward money in his head. Herod would do a little gloating, and then order Balthazar executed on the spot—that was, assuming the festering wound on his scalp didn’t kill him first.
As the sun baked the last drops of moisture out of his body, Balthazar replayed the day’s events in his aching head—a forensic accounting of every action and reaction. A study of what had gone wrong. Had it been the attempt to calm the bathing women instead of running away and finding another place to hide? Should he have taken on the ten soldiers behind the bathhouse instead of climbing up the side of the building? Stolen a horse instead of a camel? Should he have given Flavia that knock on the head when he’d had the chance?
I never should’ve gone to Damascus.
That had been the real error in judgment, hadn’t it. That was the decision that had ultimately led his nose to a horse’s ass. If he’d never gone to Damascus, he never would’ve heard about Tel Arad and its corrupt governor. But he had gone, chasing down his one weakness. That one elusive piece of treasure…the same piece he’d been chasing for years.
Excerpted from Unholy Night by Grahame-Smith, Seth Copyright © 2012 by Grahame-Smith, Seth. Excerpted by permission.
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