Monroe shuffled through the papers of the Lovecraft Codex, brittle as some of them were with age, and consulted the gazette. The gazette was a simple chronological breakdown of the salient points that were covered in the Codex, and it helped him sometimes to refresh his memory of the timeline in order to apply it to the current situation. Events that occurred decades ago could surface in ways that only someone schooled in the peculiar tradecraft of remote viewing, PSI, and ancient divination systems could deduce. There was a symbol stream flowing beneath the surface of everyday events, and Monroe was particularly keen on taking its pulse.

If Angell was going to Afghanistan there had to be a very good reason. He had not found the Book yet, but he was moving fast to the place where it was being held. He only hoped that Adnan was unharmed and providing the kind of tactical support needed for this new deviation from the plan. Aubrey had assured him he was, but the stakes were so high Monroe didn’t know who he could trust anymore.

Afghanistan. Monroe didn’t wish that tour on anyone. He knew from personal experience that the Afghan people were heroic, brave and courageous fighters with a tremendous sense of honor and dignity. That wasn’t the problem. He was worried about the Taliban, about remnants of Al-Qaeda operating in the region, and even about what was left of the Northern Alliance. There were tribal feuds and rivalries going back centuries, and they were a minefield for outsiders. Add to that the

increased trade in opium and you had all the elements of a failed state being run by criminal gangs and terror groups. He wasn’t feeling guilty yet about sending Angell into that shitstorm, but he knew that eventually he would. He only hoped that when it was all over he could make his apologies in person, to a living, breathing Gregory Angell.

The news coming in from his sources as well as the general media increased his growing sense of despair. A group calling itself Boko Haram had just kidnapped hundreds of young girls from a school in Nigeria. Intel described the group as Al-Qaeda wannabes who were going to sell the girls into slavery to raise money for their operation. He sensed there was something deeper at work there. It was all part of the overall picture, a picture some insane artist had begun to paint decades earlier in tints of blood and tears.

Boko Haram. Al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM), Jema’ah Islammiyah, Lashkar-e-Taiba. And now this group claiming to be the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant: ISIL. List all these groups and try to draw a line connecting their ideological and religious positions and you would see that none of them agreed with each other on anything. But they were all vicious, all murderous. On the surface they were different; below the surface, Monroe knew they were being guided and controlled by something no one could see but which was lethal for all that. He could see it. And eventually others would, too, once they had opened their minds up to the possibility.

Something occurred to Monroe as he sifted through the pages of the Codex. Iraq. Kutha. Kurds. Yazd. Zoroastrians. Yezidis. Afghanistan.

Oh, Christ, he said to himself. Afghanistan. That could only mean one thing: Kafiristan.

The new name for this region in the east of Afghanistan on the Pakistan border is Nuristan, the “land of the enlightened.” For more than a hundred years, however, it was known as Kafiristan, the “land of the unbelievers,” or kafirs. That was because it was the last place in Afghanistan to accept Islam. It remained animist—what some call “pagan”—until the end of the nineteenth century when they were finally converted at the point of a sword. Many Nuristanis today are devout Muslims; but many retain the old ways, as well. Across the border into Pakistan there is another group of “kafirs” with whom the Nuristanis have much in common and to whom

they are, in fact, related: the Kalasha people. Prior to 1895, the people of Kafiristan and the people of Chitral—the Kalasha people—were both members of the same polytheistic religion. The Kalasha are called “Black Kafirs” and the Nuristanis “Red Kafirs” to distinguish them. In a situation similar to that of the Kurds, they found themselves divided by arbitrary boundaries set by foreign powers, and in 1895-1896 the people on the Kafiristan side of the border were forcibly converted to Islam, while those on the Indian (now Pakistani) side remained as they were.

From the Yezidis of Iraq, to the Zoroastrians of Iran, to the Nuristanis of Afghanistan, and the Kalashas of Pakistan, there exists deep within the Muslim world a network of cultures with pre-Islamic beliefs and traditions that doctrinaire Muslims consider “satanic.” These are also people who are different in appearance from their neighbors. The Yezidis and Nuristanis often have blue eyes and even blonde hair, characteristics that they ascribe to being descendants of the soldiers of the armies of Alexander the Great as he marched through the region on his way to India.

Kafiristan (or Nuristan) is located in the Hindu Kush: a dangerous and inhospitable part of the world at the foot of the Himalayas. One of the reasons for the late conversion of the people to Islam could very well be the inaccessibility of the region. When the snows come, Kafiristan is virtually cut off from the rest of the world.

At one time it was believed that Osama bin Laden had retreated to Kafiristan, based on remote viewing sessions by none other than Jason Miller. By the time American and Coalition forces could reach the area during Operation Red Wing in the summer of 2005 it was believed that OBL had dug himself in and was being protected by loyal Al-Qaeda operatives in the region north of Kunar. It was never determined whether or not Miller’s RV sessions had been correct, for the terror leader disappeared once again only to turn up in Abbottabad, Pakistan not long after. A look at the map shows that Abbottabad is a short distance (as the crow flies) from Nuristan, and less than 300 miles if using the Islamabad- Peshawar Highway. Once across the border, bin Laden would have been able to rely upon an Al- Qaeda and ISI (the Pakistani intelligence agency) network to get him across Pakistan at that narrow point where he would set up his residence and live quietly until taken out by Seal Team Six a few years later.

This was the region where Gregory Angell was headed, in the company of his contact Adnan and two of his men.

“We can’t drive all the way. It would take days, and the danger of running into patrols of militia, regular army, and even the Taliban once we get close to the Afghan border is enormous. No way, Professor. We have to go back. If we can go back.”

This argument went on for more than two hours after the firefight at the Towers of Silence and after Angell had a fitful nap on a threadbare couch, listening to the sounds of Iranian pop music coming from a radio in the kitchen.

In the end, it was decided that they would drive to the Afghan border once they got the word from their people that there was no one looking for them. The two dead Kurds closed the case as far as the authorities were concerned. The fact of a dozen dead cultists threw panic into their colleagues, causing them to go underground for awhile to see if there would be any blowback. They had not achieved their objective, but it was too dangerous to continue the operation immediately. Nonetheless, word went out through their networks that it was possible their targets had escaped, and to keep an eye out for … well, anyone. They had no idea who they were really looking for. Had they kept the old Zoroastrian priest alive they might have had more luck.

Adnan was not happy with the change to their mission. At the same time, he knew it would be dangerous to go back the way they came. He wanted to make contact with Aubrey, but he knew he could not call him at once. He had to use burner cell phones; if he was caught with a sat phone or something equally sophisticated his whole network could be blown. So he sent the driver out to source a few more phones, and he and Angell waited in the apartment, not speaking, with a lot on their minds.

There was nowhere to get online, and even if they could the Iranians were blocking a lot of sites and generally censoring Internet access. Any suspicious web activity could be traced back to them, especially as they would be forced to use an internet cafe or some other public access point. Adnan went over all the options in his mind, but he was a professional who had been in-country for more than a year and knew what he was up against.

On the plus side, there was probably no one looking for them on the road to Birjand, which was their do or die point. After Birjand, they had a decision to make: north to the official crossing at Taybad, or south to the more questionable crossing at Zaranj. With a sinking feeling that he didn’t let Angell see, Adnan knew which one they had to take.

The Zaranj crossing was dangerous; it was used by smugglers (mostly of weapons and drugs) and bandits. It was often said that no foreigner ever crossed into Afghanistan at Zaranj and came out alive. In addition it was Taliban country. One could not imagine a more potentially lethal spot in all of Central Asia, made more so by the fact that the US Marines who had been deployed to Zaranj were on their way home after the Afghan elections, leaving the whole place in the control of the Afghan National Army, the ANA. Yet, it was a crossing where not having the right identification papers, visas, or passports might be seen as an asset rather than a liability. It was also a busy border station, with the newly- constructed two-lane Highway 606 leading from Zaranj to Delaram in Afghanistan with a proposed connection through Iran to the port city of Chabahar. Even though the region was in turmoil, commerce was still in full swing.

Once across, he could make contact with a local clan that would get them close to their destination. If they tried to cross at Taybad, they could easily get detained on either side of the border if the fake papers he was hastily arranging for the professor didn’t hold up to scrutiny.

This entire operation was going sideways, and so fast it made his head spin. He was deep undercover, a NOC in a country that had no diplomatic relations with the United States and which could use his presence there— and Angell’s—as an international incident and bargaining chip in whatever fucked up plot the ayatollahs came up with.

But he understood Angell’s insistence that he get to Nuristan as quickly as possible. He had to hand it to the guy. He was obviously nervous as hell, on the verge of a panic attack every hour, and he still pushed Adnan for a way to get to the other side of one of the most dangerous countries in the world. It wasn’t just Afghanistan; it was Nuristan. Nuristan had to be the darkest spot in the country. Hell, they lost a Chinook in there back in 2005. Not to mention some very good men. They thought OBL was in there, too, but didn’t find him. No surprise there; the guy had been slippery as hell

and had a lot of on-the-ground support. You could hide a 747 in there and no one would ever know.

Adnan was comfortable in Iran. He knew his way around. He passed easily for a local, and he had solid tactical support. He could drive them to the border and get them across. As for Afghanistan, they would have to cross the entire country to get to Nuristan. He gave their chances there about 50-50.

And after Nuristan, then what? They would be in an inaccessible border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan. They could try to make it to Kashmir, and from there to an Indian military base. It would be tricky diplomatically, but he was sure Aubrey could arrange transport for them in India.

But … how? Cross the Hindu Kush? The Himalayas? This wasn’t something out of Kipling or the Great Game. They were working against the clock.

Jesus.

He had to get a hold of Aubrey.

As an ethnic Kurd, and a member of a minority religion to boot, Adnan had a unique perspective on the conflict in the Middle East. But he was also a loyal American, and belonged to the elite intelligence community. He was proud of who he was and what he had accomplished in his life. His parents were equally proud, even though they didn’t know much about his work. They only knew that he was working for the American government.

His languages and knowledge of Kurdish clans and cultures made him one of those agents that got loaned out for special ops. There were few people working for US intelligence—domestic or international—who had that kind of expertise. Languages did not come easily to most Americans, and those who could speak Kurdish dialects as well as Farsi without a noticeable accent were few and far between. That meant he spent a lot of time in Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey: territories that include what used to be called Kurdistan.

Afghanistan, however, was a little outside his comfort zone and way above his pay grade. But what he witnessed at the Towers of Silence hardened his heart. He lost two good men that day, and his last call from them was chilling:

They must be stopped.

They were strong men. Warriors. Passionate about few things in this world outside of their people and their struggle for survival. They were not given to exaggeration or hyperbole.

They must be stopped.

If Bahadur took the time to call him as he was looking down the barrels of a dozen automatic weapons and certain death, it was to give Adnan a message that he felt had to be delivered regardless of the cost to himself. Regardless of the fact that he would use the last moments of his life on Earth to deliver that message.

They must be stopped.

His brain told him to pack it in and find a way back to the extraction site. But the ghosts of his comrades had other instructions and he began to realize he was really taking orders from them.

In the middle of that night, about two hours before dawn, Adnan, Angell and the driver were back on the road. They were making for the city of Birjand.