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7
2 YEARS

FIRST READ: 'Unholy Night' by Seth Grahame-Smith

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 saddle bags 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 ortwo. 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. Be-cause 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.