They were standing on the edge of a giant circle. In the center of the circle was what used to be an ossuary pit for the bones of the dead but which now was filled with stones. From this vantage point they could look down on the site below and on Yazd itself in the distance, but the view was lost on Angell as he realized that so many dead bodies had been left where he was standing, to rot in the sun and feed generations of vultures. It was like Ground Zero, desert version. It was while thinking about this that he jumped at the sound of a voice coming from somewhere behind him.
He was tall, and gaunt. Although he wore a long black robe over what appeared to be a white tunic he looked rail-thin. His hands had long, boney fingers that seemed preternatural, almost feral. A beard that reached down to his waist was the most impressive part of the old man’s appearance. Gray tinged with black, at first Angell thought it was an article of clothing. A trick of the light and the strange circumstance of their meeting.
“Salaam,” came the raspy greeting in Farsi by way of Arabic. Peace. “Salaam,” Adnan replied, his hand over his heart in a gesture of
“Khosh amadid,” the old man offered. Welcome. “I am Arad.”
He then turned to Angell, who so far had said nothing.
“You are al-malak?” he said in English, but using the Arabic word for “angel.”
Angell smiled at the usage in spite of himself.
“Perhaps al-malak al-din saqatu,” he said, using the Arabic for “fallen angel.”
The old man was not amused.
“Be careful, my son. These are not subjects for levity.” “My apologies, sir.”
“You have come about the book.” It was a statement, not a question. It seemed everyone and his brother knew about the book and Angell’s quest for it, no matter how far he traveled or under what circumstances.
“Yes, this is true, mobad.” Mobad. A priest. The old man nodded.
“I am a priest of the prophet Zarathustra, whom you call Zoroaster. It is the oldest monotheistic religion in the world. I have lived all my life here in Yazd, except for two years abroad to study before the Revolution. Your name was given to me by a friend who lives in Mosul, who was contacted by a man from Tell Ibrahim. They are Yezidi, I think you call them. They are Yezidi, but they are not from Yazd,” he said, with a slight smile at the pun.
Angell nodded. “Yes. We were told to look for you. Here. We were told you would be expecting us.”
The old man expelled some air, and then relaxed.
“I would ordinarily offer you some tea and some hospitality. Unfortunately the circumstances require that we be brief. There were some difficulties here a little while ago. You have heard about this.”
“Yes, sir. We have.”
“These people … these demoniacs … they also came here looking for the book. But they were confused.”
Angell looked at Adnan, who shrugged as if to say, “I don’t know, either.”
“These are called the Towers of Silence in English, yes?” “Yes.”
“But there are other Towers. Our Towers can be found wherever there are members of our faith, as far away as India. But the other Towers, they are not part of our religion. The other Towers are of Angra Mainyu, the evil Spirit, the one called Ahriman. They form a network that stretches from Iraq to Mongolia. Ours are Towers of death, it is true. We lay the bodies in circles at the top of each Tower, here,” he pointed to the circular area in which they were standing. “Men on the outside, women in the middle, and children at the very center. We return our physical forms to the World. But the other Towers, the Towers of Shaitan, are edifices built to resurrect dead gods. It is blasphemy. Criminal. A system of channels that runs through the Earth, connecting the putrefaction of corpses and consolidating it as the material basis for their High Priest to return.”
The old man had run out of breath and held up a hand to support himself against a wall as he spoke.
“You must stop them,” he gasped. “You must not let them get the book.”
Angell went up to him then, and touched him on the shoulder. “You need to rest,” he said. “Do you need water? We have some …”
“No, no,” he interrupted, holding his head erect with some effort. “I am old, that’s all. I used to prepare burials here, back before the Revolution. Now we bury our dead underground, like the Muslims. But we use concrete blocks, all around. We seal them in so they do not touch the earth. So they are not … how do you say … grounded. We cannot let them use our dead as … as batteries, or, or, food … for their High Priest.”
“But who are they? Who are those who seek the book? Yezidis?” The old man looked startled. “Yezidis? No.”
“But they have towers, outside Mosul, Lalish, and at Sinjar …”
“Yes, yes,” the old man said, waving his hand impatiently. “Those are shrines of their faith. Because they are said to worship the Devil, they are accused of maintaining the Towers of Satan. But this is not true. The Yezidis are guardians, since ancient times.”
“So, then, who …?”
Adnan interrupted to say that his cell phone was ringing and he was going to take the call outside, in the entranceway. He left Angell there with the old man, who then pressed him for an answer.
“We Zoroastrians are an ancient people. We are older than Christians, Muslims, even the Jews. But the people who seek the book are even older. They have harbored a resentment against all humans for thousands of years. Since the rise of human civilization, which they abhor. Our brothers, the Yezidis, may be just as old. They know the old words, the ancient rituals, from Sumer and Babylon. The Yezidi towers are a fortress against the evil of the worshippers of the Ancient Ones. We call the leader of the Ancient Ones by the name of Ahriman. But the old word for their High Priest is known to every culture in the world by the same name: al- Qhadhulu. Kutulu.”
That name again.
“Who are they? How can we tell …?”
“They are everywhere. They play with religion the way politicians play with politics, the way bankers play with money. They have no name, none that is known to us. They operate through other groups, even other cults. When a religion sheds human blood as part of their rituals, they are revealed. Their gods need human sacrifice.”
Adnan came rushing back in to the circle. “We have to move. Now.”
“My people got word over the radio that militia have been alerted to the presence of enemies of the state at the towers. We don’t know how, or why the Guard isn’t involved, but we can’t take any chances.”
The old man grabbed Angell by both shoulders with a strange gesture. For the first time Angell realized that the old man was blind, with cataracts clouding his vision.
“Their priest speaks to his followers in dreams. Dreams while they are awake. He is dead, but not dead. He sleeps and dreams in his death and sends dreams to others. They follow his commands.”
“Let’s go! Now!” Adnan ran to the entrance and looked in all directions, waving at Angell as he did so.
Angell tried to wrest himself away from the man’s strong grasp. “Kafiristan! The book is in Kafiristan. Find it before the others do! Seek
the Katra in Kamdesh!”
Angell got out of the grasp of the old Zoroastrian priest, but could make no sense of the words he said. But their alliteration—Katra of Kamdesh—
stayed with him. And as for Kafiristan, he knew very well where that was.
It was in Afghanistan.
He walked quickly behind Adnan who signaled his men with a gesture. He could see people returning purposefully to their bus, walking quickly but not running. Their car was parked alongside, but before they could get to it they saw two jeeps slam on their brakes just outside the brick wall.
“Wait.” Adnan stopped in his tracks. “What’s wrong?”
“We’re not going to make it to the car in time. Let’s walk back up to the tower and see what happens.”
Slowly, Adnan and Angell turned and started walking back up, hoping they would not be noticed from the street. Behind them, their tour bus passengers began getting back on the bus as if nothing was happening. One man did not join them but instead walked over to the car driven by Adnan.
“Good thing I left my keys in the car, as always,” he said. “Why?”
They had just made it to the top of the stairway and were looking down from the darkened entryway.
“If everyone left the parking lot and that car was still there, it would have alerted the militia that there was still someone on-site.
“We might be safe up here if we need to lie low. Let’s just wait a spell and see what happens.”
Angell was by now quite nervous. It looked like the worst possible scenario was about to play out.
“Hey,” he whispered to his companion. “Where’s the old priest? Wasn’t he in the tower when we left?”
They were strangely alone in the tower. Adnan looked around. “Didn’t see him leave. He would have been right behind us.”
“He didn’t look well. If the militia finds him, questions him, he won’t stand up. He’d have to talk, and it wouldn’t take much. We need to be sure we’re not compromised. Is there another way off this tower?”
Angell began walking around the perimeter of the circle, looking for a hidden exit or a fake wall. Like something from the movies. Indiana Jones and the Towers of Silence, maybe.
The sun was low on the western horizon. Shadows, long and menacing, were everywhere, stretching out from the hilltops and the towers like the old man’s long fingers.
From the side of the tower opposite the entrance came a sound. “Did you hear that?”
“From the back of the tower. It sounded like a cough or a rattle.”
Adnan said something in Farsi, just loud enough to carry to the rear of the structure. There was no answering call.
“He’s not here. He got out somehow. There’s a bad section of the wall back there,” he pointed to where some bricks had come loose and were littering the floor of the circle.
Angell walked quickly in that direction, hugging the wall as he did so.
And he heard the sound again as he got closer to the breach.
“It’s the old man.”
Angell looked through the broken masonry to see the old priest sitting against the tower wall. At his feet was a straight drop down the hill. If he moved another few inches he would fall and probably be killed from banging against the shards of rock and brick in the way down. Angell reached over to get Arad’s attention, and his hand came away with blood on it.
Adnan rushed over to where Angell was trying to revive the priest. He was more interested at the moment in what was happening to his people on the ground, but Angell was his reason for being there in the first place. The two of them lifted the man up and brought him back inside the tower. There was no way he was going to make it down the hill on his own.
“He was already wounded when he spoke with us. I wondered why he was holding onto the wall. Thought it might have been a heart attack, or something. But it was this.”
He moved the old man’s robe aside and showed Angell a slash that looked like it was made by a large knife or machete. It had gone through the robe and tunic and they hadn’t seen it against the black color of the robe.
“Someone tried to kill him. He’s still alive, but barely.”
Angell already knew that they weren’t taking him to any hospital. It would be suicide for all of them.
“Is there anything we can do?” Adnan just shook his head.
“We can bind him up the best we can, but that’s about all. I have a little water left in the bottle.” He handed the plastic bottle to Angell who unscrewed the cap.
“If we don’t do something soon, the old man will die.”
“I know that,” hissed Adnan. “You think I don’t know that?”
The dying man tried to speak. Adnan and Angell both leaned down to hear him. His voice was weak and his last conversation with them took everything out of him.
“Leave me in the Tower,” he said, in Farsi. Outside there was a gunshot. And then another.
“Let me die where I belong …here, as a priest of Zoroaster.”
Adnan was clearly agitated. The gunshots told him they had only moments before they would be discovered. And … he worried about his men outside.
“There’s no time. I have to see what’s going on out there. Be ready to move when I say. Sit the old man down and get ready to run for it.”
Without waiting for an argument Adnan slid across to the entrance and peered out at the commotion.
The militia had blocked the buses from leaving and were rounding up the tourists. The shots he heard must have been warning shots, intended to herd the gaggle of tourists into a single place in the parking lot. No one seemed to be paying any attention to the buildings in their direction, at least not yet. He could see his car parked where he left it.
One of the militia men was talking to the tourists, one by one, asking them questions. The others were spread out around the lot, their weapons hanging loosely at their sides. They were not expecting trouble. Maybe it was only a spot check. Most of the tourists would be foreigners, mostly from those countries which still allowed travel to Iran.
Or maybe it was something far, far worse.
“Who did this to you?” Angell asked the priest in his own language. “Was it the Guard, the militia …”
He could barely speak, and his tongue kept moving over his lips as if seeking some drop of moisture. His breath was coming in shallow gasps and Angell knew there was not much time. Angell tried to get him to drink, but instead he took the water in his hand and made a sign with it over his face.
“Daghaneh …” he whispered then in Angell’s ear. “Daghaneh. Their priests…”