utside, the wolves, if there were any, must have been jubilant; they reigned supreme over a doomed world. Razziel pictured a pack of them in full cry, anticipating the delight of falling upon sleeping prey, and that reminded him dimly of the troubling landscape of his youth. Were these the only things that seemed familiar to him, his only points of reference? Was there no face he could have called to mind for reassurance? Yes, there was one: that of an old wise man, wise and mad, mad with love and daring, with thirst for life and knowledge, the ravaged face of Paritus. Whenever Razziel thought about his own past, Paritus always surfaced in his memory.
The storm was violent, driven by the fry, both blind and blinding, of a thousand wounded monsters; when would its howling cease? It seemed as if it were pitilessly bent on uprooting everything, sweeping everything away to a land dominated by white death, and that this would engulf the log cabin in which he sat in this little village hidden away somewhere in the mountains between New York and Boston. Was it the end of the world? The end of a tale whose origins were unknown to Razziel? Was he to die before having met once more with his great protector, his guide, the messenger of his destiny? Surely not; it was just a fantasy, an illusion that arose from the nightmares bured deep in Razziel's memory, from which he himself had been barred for time beyond measure.
A strange orator roused him from his reverie. Theatrical, with a harsh, emphatic voice, he was delivering a speech as if he were onstage or standing before a gathering of learned men.
"I salute the gods who have guided you to this modest dwelling. Welcome. Warm yourselves, and may our meeting have a significance worthy of us all," said the man, smiling.
Were the five survivors, four men and one woman, too exhausted to be astonished at the solemn, not to say pompous, tone of these remarks? They did not react. Their host seemed to be relishing his role; no doubt this was one he had played in front of other travelers who had sought shelter beneath his roof on stormy nights.
They appeared content, these tourists who had become refugees; they were relievedin good spirits, even. Their nightmare was over. In this room, which resembled a large monastic cell with bare, immaculately white walls, they had no cause to appear uneasy. Quite the reverse; they felt lucky: Had they not just escaped catastrophe? After those interminable minutes of apprehension before the plane's forced landing, the universe had rediscovered its contours, its anchor. Their fear was dissipated. The elements would surely calm down. With solid ground beneath their feet, they felt a sense of security here in this light, warm room with a host who gave evidence of the kindness of the human heartits greatness, too. He was smiling at them, a good sign. They had been lucky to come across him. From now on all would be well. The other passengers would surely envy them when they exchanged stories, once back on the plane. For the moment they congratulated themselves on their involvement in an adventure that could have ended so badly.
"Damn it," murmured one of the travelers, a squat, morose man; he was rummaging in his pockets, searching for lost documents. No doubt he had left them on the plane.
Razziel understood his anxiety: They all lived in a world where a human being counts for less than a piece of paper. He almost proffered him a friendly word of reassuranceDon't worry; you know, in situations like this the authorities are understandingbut decided not to. He uttered a silent prayer, thanking the Lord for having taken care of him. The third man, tall, well-dressed, with a fedora, a mustache, and a red scarf around his neck, much in the style of a movie star, smiled at the woman, who was swathed in a fur coat. The danger was barely past and he was already beginning to flirt. The woman, who was put out at having left her gloves behind, blew on her fingers. Razziel glanced at the youngest of the group, who seemed indifferent to what was happening to them. This young man had something on his mind, something that was of no concern to his fellow travelers. If he was in a hurry to continue his journey, he did not show it. His eyes were focused on their host. There was something forced and false about this man's voice. His smile was disconcerting rather than reassuring. There was a fixity about his stare, a rigidity about his movements, like an actor; he seemed to be cooking up some secret plan, although his guests were not yet aware of it. How could they guess he had been waiting for themor a group similar to theirsin order to play games with what was most precious and most personal to them: the power of their imagination?
"First let us thank you for your hospitality," said the woman, an ebullient young redhead, offering him her hand, which he appeared not to see. "Truly"
"It is I who must thank you," replied her benefactor, assisting her, with exaggerated courtesy, to remove her elegant fur coat. "If you only knew how dismal and monotonous existence can be here, especially in winter. The local people get depressed. All they can think about is the weather. And all the world does here is grow old. Sometimes we feel forgotten, both by History and by men. By the gods too. Thanks to you, things will happen. What would life be without its little surprises? I am obliged to you for the Creator's gift to man: his capacity to surprise."
Then he introduced himself.
"I am the modest owner of this house. My name would mean nothing to you; besides, it's of little significance. What's in a name? I could give you a dozen. But instead let me tell you my office. I am a judge. And, indeed, tonight I will be your judge."