“You know the Nuristanis were the first ones to go up against the Soviet invasion back in the 1970s? They are fiercely independent people, which is why they were the last to convert to Islam, and even then it was at the point of a sword. There are those who say they are still pagans at heart, and that they still observe a lot of the old customs.”

Peachey was holding forth. It was evening, and they were sitting around the low table with the tea cups, eating flat bread and some kind of lamb dish. Angell was dead tired, but knew he had to pay attention as any little detail might prove valuable in the days to come. Adnan and Peachey had been talking over old times for an hour, but then talk came around to the mission ahead.

“They’re pretty much the same people as the Kalasha, right across the border in Pakistan. The Kalasha have retained their old ways and are entirely pre-Islamic. The Nuristanis—and whatever you do, don’t call them Kafiris or they will cut you for sure—talk about the old ways in a kind of nostalgic tone, even slightly embarrassed by their past. But if you scratch a little deeper beneath the surface, you’ll find that they still hold a lot of the old beliefs. One of their gods, Gish, is a warrior deity and when they went into battle against the Soviets there were still men who called on Gish to give them victory.”

“How are they with the Taliban?” asked Angell, trying to make a contribution.

“They hate the fuckers. The Nuristanis were pretty much Northern Alliance all the way. The Taliban have been trying to make inroads there, but they haven’t been successful. The Nuristanis hate outsiders generally. Any outsiders. So be careful. Be respectful, and take it slow. Observe the niceties. You’ll be okay.”

The flight to Kabul International Airport—soon to be renamed Hamid Karzai International Airport—was blessedly uneventful. Adnan and Angell were dropped off at Delaram which still had a contingent of Marines. Peachey—dressed in his Afghan clothes—walked them through security, and they puttered around the tarmac until their flight was ready at which time they disappeared into the body of the aircraft, leaving Peachey behind.

The plane dropped down through the clouds and the mountains to Kabul. It would land at the north cantonment of the airport which was reserved for military use. Adnan and Angell were both quiet during the entire flight, each occupied with their own thoughts. Adnan wasn’t really worried about security so far. There was a network of US and Coalition operatives throughout the country he could call upon for assistance, and he knew that Aubrey and his people were aware of every step they took. But the mission in general worried him because it was so nebulous and had everything to do with religion and cults and that kind of scene was always trouble. Weird religious groups were harmless in and of themselves; when they got their hands on guns and territory, though, it became a different story.

As for Angell, he was haunted by the scenes of violence and the faces of the dead. He was running on autopilot, but he knew that once he crashed after all this he would crash badly. It didn’t matter he was doing this for the greater good, or saving more lives in the process. He knew that in the end it would be his own culpability that would drive him back into that corner of his mind where the light never quite reached. That place he was at after the massacre of the Yezidis in Mosul.

God, how he hated religion.

And now he had crossed all of Iran and all of Afghanistan in order to fulfill his mission to get a book—a simple text, a collection of words—out of the hands of some mysterious enemy that everyone seemed to know about and no one knew what to call it or who its members were. The old Zoroastrian had mentioned Dagon. What Angell knew and what he hadn’t mentioned to anyone was the fact that the Kalasha people also had a god named Dagon. There was a Dagon cult in ancient Mesopotamia, too.

For a region that was considered by Western media and its consumers to be nothing but hordes of crazy Muslims—Mad Arabs—there sure was a lot of cult activity under the surface. Nabataeans, Mazdaeans, Sabeans, Alawis, Nestorians, Druze, Sufis, Yezidis, Nuristanis, Kalashas … the list was endless. They didn’t know or appreciate this in the West. A legacy of centuries of colonialism had produced an attitude that they were all the same, all “Arabs” or all Muslims; like saying there was no difference between Chinese and Japanese. Try telling that to a young woman in Nanjing. Or an old man in Kyoto.

The Iranians aren’t Arabs. Neither are the Afghans. Or the Kurds. But what difference did it make in the end? This blindness to ethnic, cultural and religious differences handicapped US foreign policy in a region that stretches from North Africa to China, and including the Balkans. There were some really astute people in the State Department—Angell knew some of them—but if they tried explaining these things to the American people they would lose their audience within the hour.

And now the dreadful had already happened. These disparate cults were being used by some other Force to manipulate the status quo, to destabilize not only the political and geopolitical map, but the religious map as well. This … whatever it was … was weaponizing religion in a way that the old Crusaders and the Moors before them had only dreamed about. The fascination of people all over the world with religion, spirituality,

esoterica, and the like had sensitized them, made them vulnerable to a group or a movement that claimed it had the ultimate scripture, the Ur-text behind all religion. It was no coincidence that he was hearing about Dagon, a god so mysterious that archaeologists and scholars of religion had very little hard information about it and what they have is contradictory. It was obviously an important deity, a creator god in some ancient cultures, who was half-man, half-fish: a hybrid being that controlled the weather, the crops, and victory in battle. The Kurds also have a hybrid deity that is part human, part snake, known as Shahmaran or the Queen of Snakes. Like Oannes, the being that came out of the sea to instruct the Sumerians on the arts and sciences of civilization, Dagon is a reference to some ancient event that was forgotten by most of the world’s population. It was an underworld god, a chthonic creature that rose from the mud and slime of the first Matter to challenge all that was holy, pure, and good. And its high priest, according to the cult around Dagon, was called Cthulhu. Kutulu. The Lord of the Underworld. Al-Qhadhulu: the god who had abandoned the planet. If these associations were correct, then Angell expected to see them repeated everywhere in the old books, the dead languages, the lore of the dying gods.

The Yezidis claim a Sumerian origin. Yezidi legends and Zoroastrian legends share many tales and even deities in common. Where they were going now—to Nuristan—was a land whose gods were equally ancient and derive from north India as well as from Persia. The Seven Towers of Satan was the fanciful name given to a network that spans the globe, linking all these groups together. It is a continuum of belief and practice stretching from Mesopotamia to India that points to a subterranean channel of ritual specialists whose task it is to keep that particular door to the past firmly closed. You can only keep it closed if you know where it is.

And here was another cult deliberately and even gleefully trying to pry it open.

They bumped down in Kabul, and before they had even come to a complete stop a truck running alongside was waiting for them to deplane. They looked like Special Forces, but they had no insignia and no nametags.

“Could be JSOC,” said Adnan. “Or SOAR.”

Angell looked out at the surroundings, and knew no matter who it was he was very far from home. Or even from any place that looked like home. For the first time he realized that he could die here.

The airport was filled with helicopters and military transport aircraft. This was the new normal for Afghanistan. Had been for decades. The Afghans were world-renowned as fierce fighters with swords and rifles; give them rocket launchers and field artillery and you had yourself a force to contend with. Unfortunately, they were mostly contending with each other.

More color coordination. A man called Brown and another called Magenta. They were driven to a hangar on the north side of the airport and transferred to a beat-up looking van.

“Don’t worry about the transport,” said Brown, in a voice intended to be reassuring. “It’s got a lot of armor plate, bulletproof tires, bulletproof glass, and gun ports. Plus an engine that could tear a Ferrari a new asshole.”

“We’re not JSOC or SOAR, just in case you’re wondering,” added Magenta. “We’re CTPT. Just another acronym, okay? Our team has been here, on and off, since 2005. Our job is to search and destroy, basically. Now, we are gonna be hugging the Afghan-Pakistan border all the way up to Nuristan. This is a fucking nightmare of an area, because you’ve got everything from Al-Qaeda to the Taliban to Chechen rebels—yeah, you heard that right—and every other godforsaken martyr-wannabe coming in from Pakistan, all looking to waste themselves a coupla gringos like you and me.”

“We understand you guys are going to Kamdesh,” said Brown. “It’s none of our business why you want to go there, of course, but you couldn’t pick a more remote location on God’s green earth. You are going to the Hindu Kush, my man. We’re going to do our best to get you in and out safely, but all I ask is that you get your shit done as soon as fucking possible. ASAFP, you know what I mean?”

“No worries. We don’t plan on hanging around long enough to change shirts. We have a guy we have to see, and then we’re out of here. We’ll cut you guys loose as soon as we can.”

“That’s all I wanna hear. Okay. Need anything? Coke? Pizza?

Dramamine? No? Okay, great. Mount up!”

The door of the van slid open and Adnan and Angell jumped inside.

It was a dirty and scratched up van of indeterminate color, mostly gray but that could have been the primer. It started up with a steady purr, however, which made Adnan feel a little better. Brown and Magenta sat up front; Adnan and Angell were in the rear of the vehicle where an inflatable mattress was set down in case either of them wanted to take a nap on the ride up.

“Normally we would take a helo up there, but that only works if you don’t care about being visible. I know you guys wanna go in dark, so that’s what we’re gonna do,” informed Brown.

“We’re going up the Kabul/J-bad Highway. The drive is about six, ten hours, give or take, until we reach the point where we have to walk. Dirt roads, washed-out roads, roads hugging the side of a cliff for miles. No way a Humvee can make it. A Chinook would get us there much faster, but it attracts a lot of attention. We lost one in there a few years ago, you might have heard, along with a SEAL team. It’s about 350 klicks to Kamdesh on a good day, so just sit back and let us worry about the drive,” added Magenta.

Adnan knew what wasn’t being said. This had reached a whole new level of lethal. They had a TACSAT phone, a lot of ammunition, MREs, and what looked like CLS bags: Combat Life Saver. Basically, field dressings for mortal wounds. He exchanged a look with Brown and Magenta, but didn’t say what he was thinking. He didn’t have to. He pointedly glanced over at Angell, and Brown and Magenta nodded. They would keep it light as far as they could. Until they started taking fire from the tree line.

Angell couldn’t believe he was sitting in the back of another vehicle for another massively-long drive to the middle of nowhere. The military had an expression: hurry up and wait. This felt like it, but that expression left out the most important part: when you wait this long, you start to imagine the worst.

He wondered if Lovecraft ever thought of the events he set in motion more than eighty years ago. Lovecraft even wrote about the Yezidi, about theosophical cults, about “crazed Levantines” rioting in the streets. He had predicted, in his own way, the Arab Spring. He wrote about these things in a relatively small output of mostly short stories that were published in pulp magazines with monsters on the covers. Letters in a bottle. If someone were to go back and decode those stories, what would they find?

CHAPTER TWENTY

THE BIG UNEASY

A man may also become a shaman following an accident or a highly unusual event …

—Mircea Eliade, Rites and Symbols of Initiation

Ti Frêre returned with a dusty paper file from the archives. The police records going back a hundred years had not been damaged by the flood waters of Hurricane Katrina, but they hadn’t been digitized, either.

Sneezing, he handed the file over to Detective Cuneo.

“I think this is what you were looking for,” he told him, and stood next to his desk, expectantly.

Cuneo looked up at him. “Am I supposed to tip you, or something?” “Oh, no,” said Ti Frêre.

“Then?”

“Oh. Right. Okay.” He walked back to his own desk, the one next to the coffee machine, to sulk.

Cuneo opened the file gingerly. The typeface on the cover was itself an antique, like maybe the props department at Universal had come up with it. He noted the signature of the investigating officer, one Inspector John Raymond Legrasse. Hmm, thought Cuneo. They had “Inspectors” back then. “Inspector” Legrasse. It had a nice ring to it. Inspector Cuneo sounded like the guy who checked your restaurant kitchen for violations. He sighed and went back to looking at the very old police report.

Inexplicably, one of Cuneo’s favorite films was Angel Heart, which took place almost entirely in New Orleans and other parts of Louisiana, and for a moment he felt like a character in that movie. Just waiting for Lisa Bonet to show up, he thought.

The pages were loose in the folder. There were some faded photographs of what appeared to be a crime scene involving what looked like more than a dozen bodies hanging from scaffolds around a central figure on a pedestal, plus a record of the interrogation of a witness named Castro, which Cuneo thought was funny. Castro.