The Rose Has Teeth Part 2: One Into Many

Eons passed in a mere six months.

Sagar was the first to reach the sand dune’s shifting zenith. Beneath him, at long last, lay their destination. The valley below him was little more than a dip in the sand. It was shallow, yet very wide.

At its center he could see the structure. A tiny cluster of tattered tents the same color as the desert was visible behind it—the remnants of the stone masons’ dwellings who had raced ahead to build the monstrosity.

Sagar glanced nervously at the sky. It was deep blue and sunless. The endless sands, fiery gold during midday, now deepened into hues of amber and began to smolder. He scanned the horizon for the faintest pale illumination that would signal the arrival of the full moon. His face was hot, but he dared not remove his wrap; as the desert cooled, the wind grew stronger, moaning steadily, arousing angry sand that would soon stir into a tempest of flying daggers. His mount snorted and began pacing with increasing agitation.

With some effort, Sagar turned the spotted, dirty white horse to face the caravan behind him. Everything about them was long—the caravan itself, their solemn shadows as they fled the fading horizon. Here, horses snorted and whinnied. There, low men cursed the desert, their horses, or one another.

“Our arrival is poorly timed!” Sagar yelled to be heard over the wind.

The grizzled man at the head of the caravan seemed unmoved. “The wage you paid has brought us here with all haste, as you requested. And I am due to be rid of your hellish charge!” He lifted the wrap from his face, spat on the ground in contempt, and quickly replaced it.

From the middle point in the caravan arose an unearthly cry—a deep, booming howl full of unquenchable desire and laced with bitter sorrow, and somehow unmistakably malicious. It was a sound that still, even after so many savage months, made Sagar’s blood run cold.

The grizzled man’s eyes widened. His face began to quiver, visible even under his protective cloth.

“Then let us be hasty!” Sagar turned and began the difficult descent into the valley, toward the distant structure.

Gobi Desert, Mongolia, 1115 A.D.

The essence of simplicity, the structure nonetheless appeared monstrous.

Neatly dressed and tightly fitted stones formed a two-tiered square platform, approximately the length of six men lying head-to-foot in a straight line through its center. The bottom tier served as an unbroken step, continuing along the outer perimeter.

At the center of the strange edifice, a curious configuration of iron stakes about the height of a man’s shin thrust upward, arranged to form a perfect rectangle. It was large enough for a man to lie inside it, with room left over. Just outside of the rectangle’s long sides, two shackles linked to thick, heavy chain were bolted directly into the stone edifice. The chains were now coiled neatly like patiently abiding serpents.

The lack of precedent made the stark prison seem surreal, as if the spectacle were one belonging to a distant world.

The caravan slowly trickled into the small valley. One by one, they surrounded the platform. Nomads, guides, a small number of monks—each in turn took his place and dismounted his horse. The desert wind grew steadily stronger, pouring over the dunes and down into the valley. The men squinted through flying sand, all eyes on the stone platform.

Eight rough-looking men wearing furs arrived on the platform, two for each end of two thick lengths of rope, on top on which rested a rectangular wooden box. The box had peculiar iron rings all around it, oriented horizontally. The men slowly lowered the box into the rectangular area, taking care to align the iron rings with the stakes that protruded from the platform. All the men were tense as the stakes slid into the eyes of the rings, as if they threaded many needles at once.

“Slowly, lads! Take care!” cried one of the fur-shrouded men. Each man winced, as much from apprehension as from strain. The rope slid quickly away from one man’s grasp. Before he could regain control he stumbled, falling into the man behind him. They both fell awkwardly to the platform.

One corner of the wooden box fell with a definitive thud to the stone below, immediately followed by a crack. Held in place on three sides by the stakes and iron rings, the wood of the box was seen to twist. It creaked and splintered, sounding as if it would snap before coming to rest.

“Clumsy oafs!” cried one of the men, as the two who had fallen came quickly to their feet.

Terrible fury came to life within the box. There was a frantic thrashing that seemed to bounce wildly from one side of the box to the other. The high-pitched shrieks and impossibly deep snarls were accompanied by an all-too-human moan of anguish that seemed to belong to this world—and yet another.

Sagar, now watching the horizon of the nearby sand dune, glimpsed the first pale sliver of the rising moon and felt panic well up within him. The wind strengthened slightly, subtly.

After withdrawing the ropes, the men prepared the shackles. One man on either side held the thick rings close to the sliding doors on the side of the box, while two other men positioned themselves at the ready to pull the small doors aside—each keeping a safe distance.

The abomination held prisoner within the box had not been seen by any man since its imprisonment. Nor had the beast been fed in all these months. Still, Sagar had kept a close watch on the box and its contents. The cries from within had at first seemed pained and hoarse, as if issued from a throat that could not accommodate such terrible sound. As their cursed voyage had carried on, the bestial cries came to sound as if the being making them had been born to do so.

Sagar had also heard shifting within the box, and odd clicking noises. He had come to believe a transformation was taking place. He dared not slide the door aside and peer in—for his own safety, and from heartache at the loss of his beloved master, Lama Norbu.

He preferred to believe that Norbu had reincarnated the moment the demon entered his flesh.

One man nodded; the door slid quickly aside. A black, inhuman hand shot out menacingly. The shackle clasped decidedly on the wrist with a clear, sharp chink. The other door slid open, accompanied by a bestial cry. The hand moved with incredible speed, and murderous fingers much longer than a man’s clutched the fur lining of a leather boot. The hardened nomad screamed wildly, dropping the shackle and flailing desperately to free himself. A second nomad stepped forward and closed the shackle on the beast’s wrist.

The beast held fast.

“The rats! Hurry!” yelled one of the men.

The contemptuous man from the head of the caravan stepped quickly forward. In one hand he held a heavy cloth sack—in the other, a wooden cage stuffed full with writhing, hissing rats. He placed the cage on the stones near the wooden box and quickly, deftly emptied its contents into the sack. The bag instantly came to life in a shifting, seething bulge of squeals and shrieks.

With a grunting heave the man lifted the bag above his head, then smashed it against the stones with a sound that was half-thud and half-crunch. The squirming contents were suddenly motionless.

“Now! Feed it now!” cried the terrified nomad, hoping the beast would be appeased and release him.

The caravan’s leader placed the mouth of the sack over the sliding metal door. There was a breathless moment as he pulled a small knob on the side of the box. The instant the metal door was open, a violent tremor seized the rectangular box and the cloth sack quickly deflated. A rumbling, guttural moan rose and fell in wet mouthfuls—the disgustingly eager sound of the bestial feast.

The beast held fast to the nomad’s leg, as surely as the shackle held to him.

Sagar looked again to the darkening sky. The full moon was now completely visible above the horizon. Sand stung his eyes and tore along his cheek.

A bloodied rat remained alive in the sack. “A last morsel for you, then it is done.” The contemptuous man grabbed the rat and brought it to the opening by hand. A wide black lip, a flash of white teeth like ivory daggers—then a burst behind the man’s eyes and a shock of pain as he reeled backward, staring at the blood spurting from three stumps where his fingers had been.

Heaving, grunting breaths came quickly from the demon within the box. Cracking, like ribs torn apart…

Violently, the beast pulled on the nomad’s leg. The screaming nomad crashed through the wooden lid, reducing it to splinters. With the falling of the terrified nomad, there was a sudden uprising from within the broken box. The wooden debris exploded outward in a burst of fury. Pent-up rage was unleashed in a cry that carried as far as the sands. It filled the ears of the men and froze their hearts in their chests.

All at once, their eyes fell upon a powerful figure standing where the wooden box had been. Shackles still held its wrists, but its arms were longer than a man’s, and more powerful. This creature was taller than slight Norbu had been. Sagar’s eyes fell upon the beast with horror, for he looked into its face, and it looked into his.

He tried to find his teacher, but instead saw eyes of solid black. There were no whites left. Where Norbu’s gentle mouth had been, two elongated black lips now jutted out and barely contained white knives almost too numerous to count. Many more teeth than a man’s mouth; many had grown in unnaturally. Most were elongated.

Sagar was the closest to the beast. Barely aware of it, he inched closer, overcome with amazement. The skin was nearly black, but incredibly, Sagar saw that it was the darkest hue of blue; he thought of the dyed sands the monks used in their mandalas. This color they used to create the nighttime heavens.

A mane of straight, light-brown hair shot back from the top of its head and down the back of the neck. Tufts of light, coarse hair sprung from its arms, legs, back, and groin.

One dark blue foot pinned the terror-stricken nomad to the stones, now too far out of his wits to scream. The beast’s face softened. His black eyes seemed to show feeling where it should not have been possible to detect.

“Suh…gr…” It made these sounds as if choking, like a dying man trying to speak through his own blood.

“Lama Norbu?” Sagar stood just below the beast, searching its face.

It spat. The contemptuous man’s bloody, mangled finger smacked Sagar square in the face and slid down his chin.

Where the beast’s attempt at speech was uncertain, there was no mistaking the self-satisfied, malevolent laugh it now issued. Demonically deep, it gained strength and grew louder. The beast’s shoulders rolled with delight. The demon roared, raising its shackled arms to the sky in defiant triumph. The wild sound filled everything, even souls.

The wind suddenly grew fierce and roared along with it, the beast and the desert singing an evil duet.

All men at once awoke from their trances and scattered like roaches, running for their horses and the caravan. The contemptuous man, drained of color, held his fingerless hand and shuffled behind the others.

As soon as the nomad underfoot twitched to escape, the demon grabbed him by the coat, lifting him with one hand. Lips pulled back in an evil grimace; countless fangs were revealed, dripping with spittle and rat meat. Black lips sealed around flesh that now gushed a torrent of crimson blood as the man’s entire face disappeared in the mouth of the beast.

Mindless twitching, then nothing.

Men who looked back now moaned with horror, but ran forward with renewed urgency. The last of them saw the beast drop the lifeless body, stare directly at the full moon and bellow with a sound from Earth’s ancient past—when creatures like this, creatures from their legends stalked the night, roamed misty forests and delighted in the kill.

Weeks later, the contemptuous man awoke in a sweat, as many of the men did since that day. He was caught by fever, hot and terribly chilled at the same time. He pulled his fur coat close to his body as the caravan rolled along, bumping through the night.

He looked at the raw flesh healing around his missing fingers and rubbed them.

As he drifted back into sleep, he recalled what had awakened him. Visions of murderous, knife-like teeth gnashed in his mind’s eye. Black eyes stared at him. Laughter taunted him, seeming to come from just over one hill or another.

He became aware of an odd sensation. In his half-dream, he could see his own body resting against wood and straw, and he could feel a gentle tug from the other side of the horizon. He realized he could feel the moon pulling him from wherever it was in the sky, visible in some distant land, and half obscured by shadow.

Not yet… not yet.

In the coming months, the contemptuous man, his rats, and the fleas they harbored would carry beer, spices, and death along the Silk Road, to the ports of the east. Boats leaving Byzantium would carry his cargo and his nightmare to the ports of Italy, and from there… to all of Europe.

Not one, but two plagues were heading west.