They began to gather just after midnight.
One of the sentries summoned Philip and Tiberius to the top of the wall and gestured out in to the inky blackness beyond the feeble pools of light cast by the torches. “There’s something going on out there,” he said.
The three men stood in silence and strained to make out any sound, any flicker of movement. Finally it came. Shuffling footsteps, low moans, grunts, and the unmistakable sounds of people preparing for…something.
“They’re out there,” Tiberius said, “Getting ready for something.”
Philip nodded. “We’d better make our own preparations, then.”
The two Centurions climbed back down from the wall and began to rally their troops.
When the Second Egyptian Auxiliary reached Jerusalem they had taken over an old legionary encampment built when there was a greater threat of a major uprising but abandoned in recent years. At the time it had seemed like a fantastic idea. The men of his cohort had more space to themselves than they had ever had before. Now that they actually had to defend an encampment designed for an entire legion, however, it was simply too large.
The one thing the encampment offered that was to Philip’s advantage was the placement. The camp lay just west of the city and was backed up against the very edge of one of the many steep cliffs that crossed the terrain around the city. While the cliff face was not completely unscaleable, it was quite difficult and precluded the use of ladders or siege engines to mount the ten foot stone walls of the encampment. It meant he really only had to defend three of the walls.
But even that was almost impossible. The walls were simply too long and his ranged fighters too few. Even with his cavalry archers of the Tenth Centuria dismounted and placed along the walls he could not hope to cover enough ground.
The only advantage he really had was that there was almost no way the walking dead could possibly mount the walls. They lacked siege engines and, he was sure, the ability to build them. That meant all the shamblers could possibly manage was a protracted siege. But, again, he was at a disadvantage. The fort simply wasn’t stocked for such an engagement. His forces would run out of food within a week.
The only hope, then, was that whatever had reanimated the dead would run out more quickly than his food.
And for that, it helped to be prepared.
He placed all his archers along the walls and made sure the ones trained with the sling collected as many stones as possible. He then ordered his siege engines mounted at even intervals along the wall. Tiberius set his legionaries to work hastily reconstructing the section of wall that had been damaged in the earthquake.
The wall was filled in and braced with a wooden palisade an hour before dawn. Philip and Tiberius deployed their infantry around the walls in the gradually lightening morning, then ran to the main gate. They climbed to the top of the wall and looked out in to the plain beyond the camp.
Philip’s heart sank as the steel gray dawn began to reveal the area beyond the walls. Thousands of shamblers stood silent and unmoving just beyond the range of a bow shot, assembled in militarily precise ranks.
“Something or someone is definitely controlling them,” Tiberius said.
“Yeshua, I would assume,” Philip replied.
“I will wait until I have proof,” Tiberius said, “All we have is the word of this Joseph.”
As if on cue, the shamblers directly in front of the main gate separated. A small party began to make their way to the front of the collection of the dead. It did not take Philip long to recognize Yeshua, but he led eleven men Philip had never seen before.
“Are they…” Tiberius rubbed his eyes, “Are those men still alive?”
“Looks like it,” said one of the soldiers manning the ballista that had been placed over the gate.
“Philip!” Yeshua called once he stood in front of the shamblers and they had resumed their precise ranks. “Philip of Alexandria!”
“I am here,” Philip shouted back down. He suddenly realized that there was no way Yeshua should know where he was from. “How do you know who I am?”
“Because I know all,” Yeshua replied. “I know you are Philip and you were born in Alexandria and you joined the auxiliaries because life in the army seemed preferable to marriage to the woman your family had chosen. I know that just as well as the fact that you stand next to a Roman who goes by the name Tiberius because he has disgraced his family and dare not say he is of the family Manlius.”
Tiberius looked at Philip with an expression of utter defeat. “I…um…I once…” he started to say.
“I don’t care,” Philip stopped him short. “We have more pressing issues now than whatever you did that disgraced some damn family a thousand leagues away. It can’t help us or hurt us now.”
A look of relief crossed Tiberius’s face. “Thank you,” he said.
“Don’t mention it.”
“Philip, Tiberius,” Yeshua shouted up, “Come down here. Join me. We should talk.”
“I’d rather stay up here, really,” Philip yelled back. “I like my walls.”
“Oh, I understand,” Yeshua replied, “But I insist.”
With that the shamblers in the back ranks moved as one. They all bent down and to the left. When they straightened back up again they held long wooden ladders over their heads.
“I was prepared for such an eventuality,” Yeshua said. “Now, please, come down before I feel the need to come up to you.”
Philip issued one last order to the crew of the ballista and the nearby archers, then he followed Tiberius down from the gatehouse. A pair of nervous looking legionaries opened the heavy gates.
“Seal them behind us,” Tiberius ordered. “Don’t let anyone through.”
“Even you, Sir?” one of the legionaries asked.
“I don’t think we’ll have that option,” Tiberius replied.
The legionary nodded.
Philip and Tiberius stepped through the gate. It slowly swung shut behind them and they heard the heavy wooden beam used to secure it slam in to place.
“I suppose there’s only one thing to do,” Tiberius said.
The two Centurions walked across the field, then came to a stop a few feet in front of Yeshua.
“I see you have listened to reason,” the former rabbi said.
“Reason? No,” Philip replied. “There is nothing reasonable about this. It’s an ultimatum.”
Yeshua nodded once. “I suppose so,” he conceded. He stepped to the side and gestured to the eleven men who had followed him through the ranks of shamblers. “These are my disciples,” he said, gesturing at them with a sweep of his hand. “The last time they saw Roman soldiers they were the ones who had no hope and no strength.”
The eleven men – who were very obviously alive when observed from close range – shifted from side to side nervously and tried not to look at the Centurions.
“They don’t appear to be any more comfortable now,” Tiberius observed.
“It is a lot to take,” Yeshua conceded. “But they will get used to it.”
“Why?” Philip asked. “Why do they have to get used to it?”
“Because when my army destroys the Roman Empire, they will be my princes. They will rule the world,” Yeshua replied, “Who else would I take except my own hand-picked disciples?”
“There’s no way that will work,” Philip said. “You can’t possibly take on the entire Roman Empire. Your little army here is an impressive trick, but it’s not nearly enough.”
“Oh, of course it isn’t,” Yeshua agreed. “There has never in the world been such an army as the Roman army. In war the only time an army of the Roman Empire has lost in battle is when they are fighting another army of the Roman Empire.”
Yeshua took a step towards the Centurions. “That is the problem. See, the Judeans seem to think that all they need on their side is my Father. He was able to beat the Assyrians, the Egyptians, and the Philistines, after all. But the Egyptians were weak, the Assyrians had too many enemies, and the Philistines,” Yeshua stopped and smiled, “The Philistines were little more than barbarians, barely able to figure out how to speak.”
“Your…father?” Philip asked.
“Yes,” Yeshua looked up to the sky, “My father. El. Yahweh. He was a big fish when this pond was little. Then the Persians showed up and he couldn’t do a thing about it. The Hellenes were even worse. He only managed to wrest control back after they weakened themselves by fighting each other. And everything looked great until you thrice-damned Romans arrived.
“Time and again men tried to rise up as Judas Maccabeus did. Time and again the might of the Roman army crushed the self-declared messiahs. So I decided to take matters in to my own hands. But for that I needed help.”
Philip gestured at the shamblers. “Them?” he asked.
“They were the first step,” Yeshua replied. “The blood of my people cried out for vengeance and freedom, after all.”
“Were?” Tiberius asked.
Yeshua smiled a tight, cruel smile. “Yes. I’ve already moved on to step two. As I said, the only army that can hope to stand up to the Roman army is the Roman army itself. So…well, see for yourselves.”
The first rank of shamblers directly behind Yeshua took a simultaneous step to the side.
Three ranks of about fifty Roman soldiers stepped out to the front of Yeshua’s army. Many carried the rectangular shield of the Roman legion, but most held oval shields and hefted hastae. Philip scanned the ranks and recognized many of the faces of his own men.
Then he saw Lucius, or, rather, the body that once was Lucius, standing on the far left flank of the first rank.
“You bastard,” Philip said.
Yeshua shrugged. “I guess it depends on how you look at it.”
“You have forgotten to take one thing in to account,” Philip said, wrapping his arm around the hilt of his sword.
“What’s that?” Yeshua asked.
Philip drew his sword and pointed it at Yeshua’s chest. “The Roman army never gives up.”
Yeshua opened his mouth to respond, but at that moment a half-dozen arrow shafts struck him in the chest. Then the massive bolt from a ballista wooshed directly over Philip’s head and passed through Yeshua’s before burying itself in the ground at the feet of one of his startled disciples.
Yeshua’s headless body crumpled to the ground. At that moment whatever spark of malevolent life kept the shamblers on their feet withdrew and they collapsed with almost military precision.
Silence reigned for what seemed an eternity as the two Centurions stared across at the suddenly terrified disciples.
Finally, out of lack of any better ideas more than anything, Philip put his sword away.
“What,” the disciple who had nearly been hit by the ballista bolt started to speak, then swallowed hard. “What will you do to us?” he asked.
Philip shrugged. “I get the impression that you really didn’t have anything to do with this.”
“No,” the disciple shook his head, “When the teacher died we all thought about running. But then he came back and, well, we didn’t see we had much of a choice.”
“Then return to your homes,” Philip said. “Try to forget about this.”
“What should we tell the people?” the disciple asked.
“I don’t know,” Philip shrugged. He rapidly dug through his memory for teachings of his own philosophy that might apply. “Tell them that it’s all a sort of metaphorical thing. Say that the message of your rabbi was that the only way you can truly be free is to be willing to give everything up and die.” It wasn't quite Epicureanism, but the search for simple pleasure in everyday life rarely included handling the walking dead.
“That’s pretty stupid,” Tiberius said.
“You’re not helping.”
Tiberius shrugged. “No one ever wants to take constructive criticism.”
“No,” the disciple shook his head, “It’s not. The teacher said he was going before us to prepare a place in his father’s house. So we can say that his teachings were to be willing to give everything up in order to find the reward promised in the next life.”
“Yeah,” Philip nodded, “That works. Now go on, get out of here.”
The disciples turned and walked away. As they picked their way over the fallen bodies of the shamblers Tiberius turned to Philip.
“So you think we’ll ever hear from them again?”
“Nah,” Philip shook his head. “That’s a pretty harmless doctrine to teach. Everyone will forget about it by the next time someone declares himself messiah.”
“Yeah,” Tiberius nodded, “You’re probably right.”
The two Centurions turned their backs on Yeshua’s headless body and walked back to their encampment.