Ursa Major. The Great Bear. The Big Dipper.
Mosul and Yazd comprised the first two stars in the handle of the Dipper. That was easy enough. There were five more stars that were assigned to five more sites on the map of Asia. China’s White Pyramid near Xi’an was one. Urumqi in Xinjiang Province was another. But Miller intended to grab the Book long before anyone made it that far. He knew where Monroe’s team had to be headed next, for he knew where the Keepers of the Book were headed. The Keepers had been in Kamdesh a few days before Monroe’s people. They had been in Yazd. They had left Kutha only hours before Monroe’s team had arrived. And they would be in Srinagar next.
Alone in the restroom, the only sound that of dripping water from somewhere and the smell of untreated sewage in his nostrils, Miller closed his eyes and moved his consciousness out of his body and down, down into the contours of the map.
For a remote viewer, sometimes the map is the territory.
The Keepers of the Book were moving fast. Miller saw enormous mountains covered in snow. The sun was rising ahead of them, so they seemed to be moving southeast with the mountains on their left. The
Himalayas, most likely. But he couldn’t “see” the next Tower. They would have to cover all seven towers, in order. And they had to do it so that they were at the last tower when the stars were right.
There were seven Keepers, according to tradition. Yet Miller saw only six. It was possible that one died along the way. If that was the case, the Keepers would keep moving anyway because of the schedule. There was no time to bring up another Keeper through the complicated initiation process. That meant they would be somewhat weaker when the time came, but with the Seven Towers, the Book, and the Stars they would have enough of the ingredients to facilitate their goal. They would awaken the Sleeper, and the world would know Reality with a capital “R.”
He viewed the likely outcome. He saw that all the crackpot theories of conspiracy nuts, ancient astronaut cranks, and occult archaeology addicts would seem to be coming true, but in reverse. A Gate would be opened— that was the terminology the cult used—and the separation between this world and another would dissolve. Forces had been gathering outside the Gate since the end of World War Two; even earlier according to some prophets of the cult. There had been a gradual awakening of the Sleeper going back centuries, thought Miller in his self-induced hypnogogic state. But the real pressure had started to build in 1945. And then, in 1946, the rituals in the Mojave had accelerated the program, so that by 1947 the first of the Ancient Ones had begun to materialize on the planet, in full view of human beings.
He came to, the session ending of its own accord. He was leaning against the wall of the bathroom stall, the map in his hand. He noticed that his finger was pointing at a specific spot on the map. It was in Nepal. High up in the mountains east of Kathmandu.
How perfect, he thought. The hidden valley. The Keepers must be on their way there now. He just might be able to beat them to it.
Angell’s vehicle had driven for hours into the Swat Valley. They were on their way to a Kalasha village where they had a contact: a man who was compromised because of his love for a Muslim girl from another village. The Taliban were holding that information over him, to force him to cooperate.
The Taliban hated to go anywhere near the Kalasha, unless it was to burn their villages to the ground. The Kalasha of Pakistan are non-
Muslims who still openly practice their ancient religion, ancient even when Alexander was a baby. They were a thorn in the side of the Taliban but Pakistan was not Taliban country and there was little they could do about it. They were just passing through, and any attempt to throw their weight around in the Swat Valley would be reason enough for ISI to turn on them and have them all arrested. Or worse.
They did not get the information they wanted from the Katra of Kamdesh, not even after torture and interrogation. The village elders were too frightened of the Taliban to offer more than token resistance, and even then it was more in terms of persuasion than threats of violence. However, Omar Mansour knew that the villagers would eventually rise up against them and that the longer he and his men stayed in Nuristan the more likely a firefight would be. Mansour’s own position within the Taliban was precarious as it was. Should he lose fighters to the kafirs he would become the laughing stock of the movement, if he wasn’t executed himself as an example. His only defense was the fact that he was aggressively seeking the Book; if he didn’t acquire it, however, he would be the next to lose his head.
The Kalasha of Pakistan were, in a sense, the “Vatican” of the Kalasha clans. As they had not converted and as they had kept the old ways they knew the rituals, the legends, and the ancient lore concerning the Book. At least, that is what Mansour was depending on. His people had been overzealous in their interrogation of the Katra—a shaman who aroused nothing but disgust in them—and they had allowed their feelings to overwhelm their common sense.
He had also received intelligence that a group known as the Keepers of the Book had passed through the region only days before. There was only one place they could be going, and that was to the Kalasha homeland. He knew they must have talked to the Katra, the one person in all of Nuristan who knew the old ways and was a person they could trust, but his interrogators had been foolish and had allowed the man to die before he could reveal any secrets.
So they cut off his head and arranged it neatly in his lap, as a warning to the Americans.
As for the prisoners, Omar Mansour would deal with them himself. There was no reason to keep them alive. He could string Doctor Angell along for quite some time by telling him everyone was in good health, but
Angell was really in no position to bargain. Briefly, he considered keeping one or more of them alive as something to trade in the event he needed something else, or safe passage out of Nuristan without losing any men. He would see how he felt. After all, it was known that Omar Mansour was a man of many moods.
As he stepped outside of his temporary command post at the outskirts of Kamdesh he saw figures in the shadows all around him. Villagers, elders, even children. Everyone was afraid of him. Everyone hated him. But that was no matter. It was better to be feared than to be loved. He read that somewhere.
There was a cry as if from a dog howling at the moon. Dogs were disgusting creatures. Coprophagic. Islam says that dogs are unclean, the eaters of filth and dead bodies. The mere sight of a dog was sometimes enough to make him ill.
He started walking down the dirt road between the buildings on his street. His men were walking behind him, looking in every direction, armed to the teeth. It was then he noticed that there was only a waxing moon, a sliver of light in the heavens. The rest of the sky was filled with stars. For some reason, the sight of all those stars filled him with a kind of dread, as if they were faces of a jury and the sliver moon was the prosecutor assigned to his case.
The howl came again. He heard a shuffling sound as more and more villagers came out of their homes to stand in the dirt road and watch him pass.
Mansour was the head of the Taliban in Pakistan, and as such was a wanted man by the Pakistani authorities. He was tall and thin, with a long black beard that came to the middle of his chest. In his thirties, and the father of three children, he was a charismatic leader who loved to play volleyball. He only had a high school education, plus some time spent in a madrassa: a religious boarding school. Other than that, he was self-taught, having learned English by listening to the BBC. He joined the Taliban in 2007 and rose to prominence within its ranks. His men loved him and called him Emir, “prince,” and even Khalifa, or “caliph”; he was considered an uncompromising supporter of jihad and an opponent of everything that was decadent and western.
He loved the tribal regions and tribal people. He loved their simplicity and honesty, and their pure faith untainted by materialism and slavish
devotion to western culture. The only exception to this rule was Nuristan. They were tribal people, too, but they represented a time before Islam, before even Christianity or Judaism. They were from before Abraham, worshippers of jinn. They were people of darkness, and if he could get away with it he would slaughter them all.
More people left their homes and simply stood on the streets, watching him and his entourage pass. They had no expression on their faces. It was as if they were all dead, spirits of the dead, come to accuse him of murder.
He strode among them, through them, without a word. He was heading to the place where they kept the prisoners and he had a decision to make. If he slaughtered them now, he and his men could leave and make for the border. If he didn’t, he could either take them with him or stay there another day or so until he heard back from his men in Kalasha territory.
He kept walking.
Another howl in the night, another dog or some other animal. It meant the jinn were out in force. Dogs could see them and alert their masters.
Then he passed the building where the dead shaman was still chained to the pillar with its obscene carvings, and the howl became stronger: a rolling, deep-throated sound that vibrated the stones underneath their feet.
Omar exchanged glances with his men, then gestured for them to enter the building. They nodded, locked and loaded, and carefully went through the door.
They froze when they got a few feet inside. Omar followed and walked through the midst of them to face the source of the howling.
It was the head of the shaman in the corpse’s lap, eyes wide open, mouth distended in an unending, animalistic bellow.
They opened fire on the shaman’s head and corpse in a deafening roar in that enclosed space, splintering the body as well as the pillar to which it was chained. Omar shouted at them to cease firing. They were only wasting ammunition, and were firing out of absolute terror at something that was already dead.
“Stop! Stop firing! It is dead! Stop!” He slapped his hand down on the arm of the man closest to him, then moved to the next. Soon, the ringing in their ears from the automatic fire subsided and the smoke from the barrels of half a dozen AK-47s drifted away. What was left of the shaman was now nothing more than an indentation on the dirt floor of the temple.
That is when Omar realized that they had been had.
“Where are the prisoners?” he shouted at his men. “Where are they?”
Adnan and the two CIA anti-terrorism agents were running on the road south of Kamdesh, armed and free. The two Taliban who were guarding them had their throats slit by a group of villagers who had appeared out of nowhere, distracted them, then overpowered them. They untied the prisoners and handed them the weapons. They were told there would be a pickup truck going south on the road out of town that would take them as far as Jalalabad. Then the villagers melted back into the town just as the firing began at the shaman’s temple.
The terrorists began searching the town, looking for the escaped prisoners. Omar was furious, both with his men and with the villagers. If he tried to exact revenge, however, the wrath of Nuristan would fall on him. The Afghan National Army would probably take that opportunity to finish them off. He consoled himself with the thought that Angell was on his way to find the Book, and that no matter that he lost his prisoners there was nothing they could do to interfere with his plans.
Adnan heard the engine first. They scattered to the side of the road to make sure that the truck coming down the road was their contact. When the vehicle came slowly around a bend in the dirt track Adnan spotted the driver and recognized him as one of the men who had freed them. He waved him down, and the truck stopped. The three men jumped on the bed in the rear of the pickup and covered themselves with a tarp that had been spread there for the purpose. The truck then set off for Jalalabad.
Angell was jostled awake by the sudden stop of the vehicle and the attendant shouts of the men. They seemed to have reached their destination.
He was pulled roughly onto the road and was able to get some idea of where they were. The mountains were in the distance, and in his immediate surroundings he saw a young man dressed in black clothing. He was handsome, with very pale skin for a Pakistani, and with shocking
blonde hair and blue eyes. He was their Kalasha contact, and stepped over to the side of the road to talk to the Afghans.
Angell couldn’t hear their conversation. He wasn’t meant to. Instead a guard was posted to keep an eye on him while he relieved himself on the other side of the road. He thought briefly of making a run for it, but realized at once it was a plan doomed to failure. He had no real idea of where he was, and was surrounded by armed men. If he made it to a Kalasha village there was no guarantee that they wouldn’t hand him over to the Taliban anyway. He needed a scorecard to keep track of all the players in this game, and knew that the rules of that game changed by the hour. If you weren’t immersed in it, you would become the one being played.
The men broke up and started walking back to their truck. Angell could tell that there was something disappointing in the news they received from the young Kalash.