Smoking Mirror
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Miroir%20fumant%20-%20Chapitre%201

Chapter 1: Where people talk about reflections and snakes

"It seems that the bad weather has decided to settle in. Thomas! A drink for my unexpected guests, please," De Corbiac exclaimed, clapping his hands.

The servant raised his eyes to the ceiling and left the living room, a resigned expression on his face. His master, who, fortunately, had his back turned to him, leaned against the chair occupied by the person whom Ashcroft had, for the moment, resolved to refer to mentally as "the man with the trunk". Their host, De Corbiac, was clearly delighted to have unexpected visitors in his lakeside home, like an actor perpetually looking for an audience. His appearance was somewhat unkempt, with his curly hair styled at random, but on closer inspection one could guess this was a deliberate effect and not an accident. One of the buttons of his collar was undone, and his tie was badly tied in a way clearly designed to draw attention to his bare neck; and Ashcroft had to admit that the charm was doing its job, on him, at least.

Ashcroft's stagecoach had overturned while taking an accidental detour in the rain on the road to Rouen, and their driver had informed them that he would not be able to find a replacement due to a technical problem until the next morning at least. On the way to the nearest inn, the four passengers had met the servant of some kind of eccentric local dandy, and one thing leading to another, they had piled into a horse-drawn carriage, invited to spend the evening at his residence: a comfortable two-story house lost somewhere out in the countryside and filled to the brim with trinkets. The fact that a servant would take this kind of initiative had seemed very curious to Ashcroft, until he noticed his master's relative lack of surprise, and came to suppose that the latter had given him standing orders to bring him company at the slightest opportunity.

Thomas returned, carrying a tray with five glasses, each containing a transparent liquor; De Corbiac caught all of them between his fingers, palms up, and handed them out to the small crowd, smiling like a magician satisfied with a good trick. The servant thought it wise to retreat to the kitchen, already looking weary of his theatrics.

"A toast! To the ruts in the road, which bring new friends as well as trouble," declared their host, raising his glass.

The liquor smelled exactly like one of the chemicals Ashcroft used to clean his instruments in medical school. Rather than drink it immediately, he turned his gaze towards his fellow unfortunate travelers.

The "man with the trunk" wore a neat mustache, but had a slight squint in his right eye that he tried to hide behind thick glasses. His clothes were a bit worn and too big for his body, giving him the look of a large middle-aged man who had lost a lot of weight very quickly and still thought he had to make himself very small to sit anywhere. So far he had only opened his mouth twice, both times to ask that no one touch his huge, mysterious trunk.

Mr. Klein, on the other hand, was a lanky man sporting elegant sideburns, and he exuded a mixture of heady perfumes as well as some kind of lazy energy, a contagious languor that made you want to answer "why bother?" to everything offered to you. In spite of this, he always wore a smile that had something unhealthy and feverish about it, as if he was dying to tell all sorts of horrors to his audience, but restrained himself out of politeness. However, he had already proved himself very talkative.

Ashcroft felt inadequate, having traveled little in his life so far, which was sad when you were already twenty-two. There was nothing fascinating about having to meet a thesis master in Rouen. To his own eyes, his jacket seemed ill-fitting, his blond hair unkempt, his knowledge uninteresting. He had been content to listen to Klein distractedly for a good part of the trip, nodding from time to time to give himself a sense of composure.

He was therefore very surprised when De Corbiac addressed him first. "So you're not drinking, sir… sir?"

"Ashcroft, sir."

"A very English name indeed. What news bring you from perfidious Albion?"

"I'm afraid I've none, sir. I've been living in France for more than eight years for my studies."

Disappointed, the dandy emptied his own glass, then dexterously picked up Ashcroft's in order to put it back on the tray, with an exaggeratedly complicated gesture, like a fly looking for a place to land on rotten fruit. Despite a certain tension around De Corbiac's eyes, the man must have been barely older than Ashcroft himself.

"What are you studying?" his host asked. "The art of temperance and abstinence?"

Ashcroft thought he might have offended him by not drinking his glass, but when he looked at his face again, he saw only amusement.

"Medicine, sir."

"No need to punctuate each of your sentences with a 'sir', I'm not your teacher. We are among friends here, are we not? Medicine, you say? Fascinating. How did you come by this vocation?"

You're at the equivalent of a small social event, Ashcroft thought to himself. It's a good exercise for your future working life. Be polite but not overly so, adapt to the atmosphere of the house, and for God's sake, please try to be witty.

"Some people feel the call of duty and take up arms," he explained confidently. "I felt the same call, except I picked up a stethoscope instead."

Klein, toying with his still half-full glass, graced him with one of his hyena-like smiles and whispered, "A very noble sentiment for someone who will probably kill many more people in the practice of his art than a soldier ever would."

Ashcroft, disconcerted, found nothing to retort, and was very happy that De Corbiac took the lead by turning to Klein for his next question. "And you, my witty friend, where are you from?"

"My previous destination."

"And cryptic, as well!"

"Travelers come from nowhere, by definition. Let's just say I'm looking for the secret of perpetual human motion in order to cheat boredom."

An unpleasant expression passed over De Corbiac's face, as if his comedian mask had briefly slipped. This living room was clearly too small for two actors looking for the lead role. The smile he returned to Klein was slightly forced. "People say every man runs from the enemy he fears the most."

"And I fear that my stay here will give that enemy an opportunity to catch up with me," Klein declared, looking their host dead in the eye.

The tension between the two men was becoming palpable. Desperate to defuse it, Ashcroft opted for a diversion and turned to the man with the trunk. "And you, sir? Are you also an unattached traveler?"

He was almost surprised to hear him answer. "Lacroix, sir. On the contrary, I'm afraid I have too many burdens to carry, to match my name."1

"Perhaps you mean your luggage?"

"Oh, that? No, that is something for my collection."

"So you are a collector?"

"Of ancient musical instruments. Sheet music, too – I am carrying something quite incredible."

Lacroix seemed to have suddenly woken up, now that an opportunity to talk about his passion had presented itself. Ashcroft thought to himself that he had misjudged the man.

"An acquaintance of mine discovered a remarkable stele in the Kingdom of Bulgaria, on the Black Sea coast, in 1890. It took me two years, but I finally got my hands on it. He thought it was a tomb, but I am convinced that it is an ancient form of musical notation, unknown to this day."

The man was now animated and sitting upright in his seat, seeming to have grown ten years younger during this short conversation. He spoke of music as a patriot speaks of his country, or a lover of his mistress. It is beautiful to have such passions in life, Ashcroft thought..

Visibly offended by no longer being the center of attention, Klein leaned toward the last guest, whom he had been staring at for the last couple of minutes. From this angle, it was obvious that the self-proclaimed eternal traveler was suffering from some kind of insomnia, if the shadow under his eyes was to be trusted. "And you? What about you? Are you a supporter of boredom, or of novelty? Who are you?"

Mister Glass. Ashcroft had almost forgotten he was even there. Brown curls and a smart look. A very ungracious nose, almost owl-like. Something ethereal in the way he held himself. Hands as slender as a damsel's. Clothes that were far too grey for someone so unusual. How had he managed to conceal his presence?

He had been with them in the same stagecoach, though. Hadn't he? Hadn't he also told strange anecdotes from distant countries during the trip?

Why was he suddenly asking himself these questions?

"Nobody particularly interesting, I'm afraid," replied a soft, almost feminine voice.

"Everything interests me, my dear fellow."

"You might as well say that nothing really interests you."

"Finely observed."

Come to think of it, Ashcroft didn't remember seeing Glass get on the coach at all. He hadn't been there, then he had been the next moment, and no one seemed to have been surprised by his presence or his arrival.

Klein leaned forward a little more in his seat; at this rate, he would soon end up on the carpet, Ashcroft thought. The traveler was still staring at his interlocutor in a way that bordered on indecency. "Glass, isn't it? The English word for mirror. A very narcissistic name, if I may say so."

"A mirror in which you haven't tired of staring at your own reflection for the last couple of minutes, if I'm not mistaken," Glass said as he set his empty drink back on the tray.

"Touché. I like people with repartee. With a name like yours-"

"Let's call it a nickname."

"So be it. With a nickname like yours, surely you're from America?"

"From here and there, actually. My research calls me everywhere I need to be."

"Some search what others find."

"I doubt that's the case with my field of study."

"Astonish me, my dear Glass."

Ashcroft was beginning to understand, confusedly, why Klein had been studying his interlocutor so intently for the past few minutes. There was a fundamental oddity about Glass, and it was impossible for him to put his finger on it.

Lest he appear rude by staring too, he decided to finally taste the liquor and retrieved his own glass. The drink was syrupy and burned his throat terribly. He coughed, which elicited an amused chuckle from De Corbiac, who was now leaning against a mantelpiece covered with various exotic objects.

Now it was Glass' turn to stare at Klein, in a way that was neither inappropriate nor lascivious, but nevertheless contained an air of latent violence. Absurdly, Ashcroft thought of the animals he had dissected in class many years ago, and the disgusting smell that always rose from them. Klein was being cut open by this look, from his lower abdomen to his throat, at the risk of revealing his foul-smelling entrails.

Glass stood up calmly and tapped a black lacquered wooden box from the mantelpiece with his nails. It was one of those Far-Eastern puzzles that could only be opened by a specific manipulation.

"I could answer you, sir, but why pretend to be interested in the puzzle when you are only interested in the box?"

In response, Klein just finished his drink, still mentally undressing Glass with his eyes. Slowly.

It's a woman, Ashcroft thought abruptly. This was the oddity he couldn't quite figure out. Glass was a woman dressed as a man. A gynander2, just like in that book he had recently read, that drama written by Péladan. That's what was troubling him so much. He had to find a way to think about something else, and fast. The lacquered box, for instance? Was there anything else notable on the mantelpiece?

"Speaking of which, I see some very nice things on this mantelpiece, Mr. De Corbiac. Where did that golden head come from?"

The dandy, delighted, grabbed the aforementioned head, let himself fall limply in the last unoccupied armchair, and began to examine it. With his cleverly disheveled air, Ashcroft thought he looked a bit like a monkey admiring a fruit he had just picked.

"You see, my grandfather made his fortune in the shipping business overseas. Nothing but dull stuff, I'm afraid; it wasn't buccaneering, alas. Still, he always brought me curiosities from faraway places, and since then I've retained a certain taste for the exotic." He caressed the statuette, seemingly enjoying the texture of the golden curls under his fingers. "The other thing I've retained from him is his wealth, which I take great pleasure in spending on anything that catches my eye. This, for example, was sold to me by an English gentleman who had just returned from China. The head of a local deity, he said. In spite of my taste for beautiful things, I must confess my ignorance of Far Eastern superstitions, I'm afraid."

"That is a Buddha," interrupted Lacroix.

"A Buddha, you say?"

"The god of Buddhism. It is a good idea to open an almanac from time to time, and I don't mean the Vermot3; you learn all sorts of interesting things in them, you know."

"I'll think about it sometime. What does this Buddha do?"

"He teaches people how to detach themselves from the things of this world, in order to be finally peaceful and satisfied, because all the evils on Earth come from the desire to obtain more and more material things."

Klein, who had pulled a pillbox out of his pocket to take some medicine, snorted with laughter. "This acquisition suddenly takes on an extraordinary irony."

"Now I am regretting not reading up on it sooner," De Corbiac chuckled. "And to think that this head has been on my mantelpiece for years! Imagine the number of jokes this anecdote could have led to during my ever-so-materialistic parties. What a waste."

"These statues are often quite heavy," explained Lacroix, who was proving to be quite erudite for such a seemingly quiet fellow. "That's why the English are often content to only bring their heads back home."

"Somewhere in China, there must be dozens of statues, their heads severed for the pleasure of some lord who also thought it would look fancy in his living room," Glass continued dreamily. "Their identity lost forever, taken to the other side of the world and turned into a mere trinket." His hand lingered on a bowl full of decorative eggs carved from various minerals. "I saw a stone statue near Mexico, once, with two snakes for heads, wearing a necklace of human hearts, hands, and skulls. However, the locals say she's a protective, benevolent deity. So goes the English empire, as well as all the empires of men; it cuts heads off, and still declares itself protector of its people."

Ashcroft could not help but intervene. "Excuse me, are you comparing Queen Victoria to a pair of poisonous snakes?"

"Oh, if that's all that offends you, I can also call President Carnot a viper, to set the record straight," Glass replied impertinently, along with a smile that completely disarmed him.

"So collapse all empires in this extraordinary fin de siècle," De Corbiac declaimed, pulling a bottle from some compartment hidden in the woodwork, and presenting it to his audience with all the effrontery of a magician who has just pulled it out of his sleeve. "Here is a second toast: to the deadly snakes that hiss over our heads and rule this world in perdition!"

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Although their host's house was hardly imposing, it was obviously intended to receive guests on a regular basis, and Thomas opened several rooms upstairs for them. He seemed to be the only servant there, and must have had his hands full trying to keep the place in a decent state, judging by his master's reference to some "ever-so-materialistic parties" earlier.

Ashcroft dropped his leather bag by the bedside table and briefly lit the oil lamp. The room was small and smelled a little musty, but it was also tastefully decorated, the window faced the lake, and the bed was much more comfortable than the one he had at the university. An old pre-revolutionary tapestry in faded colors hung on the opposite wall, depicting a dog flushing out pheasants while several people on horseback approached in the distance.

Such a work required more than a hundred colored knots per square inch, and nowadays, it was possible to take a picture almost as good, though in black and white, with one of these new cameras the newspapers were touting. Ashcroft felt infected by the same fatalism that permeated the living room downstairs two hours earlier.

Modernity is a good thing, he tried to convince himself. You are scientific and rational. You know very well that things were not better before, and that all this melancholy fashionable in the upper classes, where one indulges in a form of sadness that is wanted, studied, and aggressively perverse, is all smoke and mirrors. Electricity is revolutionizing the world. Everything is going faster. Diseases that were thought to be fatal are now being treated. You have to be an idle rich person to find all of this boring, and an obnoxious person to find it detestable.

That was why he avoided fraternizing with the literary students of Paris, even though it was sometimes unavoidable. You can choose your friends, but not the friends of your friends, and one of those unwanted acquaintances was a young man named Mercier who wore an anachronistic lace collar, proclaimed himself to be a modern knight, and constantly talked about the "beauties of long gone eras" with a dreamy air. Ashcroft thought at first that it was an affectation, to give himself a style; except that when, during a game of cards, another friend had risked a joke suggesting that Mercier must have been licking the engravings of Joan of Arc in his history books, he had blushed all the way up to his eyes and left the table hastily. A certain uneasiness had persisted in the room after that.

At least the accidental company he had made for himself in this lakeside house did not indulge in this sort of unhealthy, tragic romanticism. De Corbiac, rather than wallowing in the fin de siècle melancholy, seemed to draw most of his energy from it and even find joy there. Perhaps that's why Ashcroft couldn't despise him like Mercier and actually enjoyed his company.

As he gradually drifted off, a melody muffled by several walls reached him. The rhythm was hesitant and clearly the work of an amateur, but the sound itself was quite strange. What was this instrument and who could play it at such a late hour? Lacroix, testing one of the pieces of his musical collection, perhaps?

Outside, the rain was still falling.

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Miroir%20fumant%20-%20Chapitre%202

Chapter 2: Where the tree hardly hides the forest

When Ashcroft, after a dreamless night, went downstairs, he was surprised to see the servant Thomas, quite agitated, hanging up the wall-mounted telephone abruptly. After all of the occupants of the house had gathered to inquire about the issue, it turned out that the weather had worsened beyond all anticipation overnight; veritable mudslides had swept away several trees, and the roads were impassable for now. It was surprising that the telephone line to the village was even still working.

As if to confirm the news, the windows were streaming with torrential rain, masking the view of the lake and the surrounding woods.

After disappearing for a few minutes to inquire about the state of the cellar's supplies, De Corbiac reappeared in the living room and announced: "It seems that you have the misfortune to endure my company for another day or two, my dear friends. I am deeply sorry about that." Ashcroft noted, however, that he was saying these words with a smile, his eyes sparkling with satisfaction. "If by any chance you should find this prospect too boring, my library is of course open to all of you."

Ashcroft was surprised that someone as seemingly uncultured as De Corbiac would even have a library, even though it was as small as his bedroom upstairs, but his astonishment was short-lived. The books were mostly rare and expensive editions, and some were even centuries-old manuscripts; many were in foreign languages, and it was quite obvious that the owner of the house had only read a few of them. Again, it was his taste for rare objects that was expressed, rather than his interest in their contents.

Despite this, a lot of the books had been misplaced by their previous readers, and several, quite incongruously, were even lying on the floor - a mess no doubt left by previous guests, so recently that Thomas had not yet had time to tidy up this particular room. Ashcroft wondered again how often De Corbiac's so-called parties took place and whether their little group was just another one in the endless stream of guests the dandy and his servant had managed to lure under this roof.

As he selected a few books (his hand lingered on the Odyssey, which he had never had the opportunity to read until now, but instead grabbed something that looked like an ancient medical book), a curious smell became noticeable in the surroundings.

The room obviously smelled musty, dusty, like wood and old paper, that was natural… but in that case, where did this strange sweet smell come from?

On his way out of the room, distracted by his thoughts, Ashcroft stumbled upon a book on the history of transport, which he added to his reading pile without a second thought.

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"Forgive my impertinence, Lacroix, but was it your music we heard last night?"

The collector stopped writing in his notebook and looked up at the master of the house, who had just entered the living room, holding a newspaper that was obviously a few days old, judging by its condition. The day was already quite advanced, and the rain still hadn't stopped. Ashcroft, Lacroix and Klein were currently all in the same room, writing and reading, but Glass seemed to be doing something upstairs, judging by the intermittent footsteps and slamming of doors.

Lacroix seemed fairly embarrassed. "I couldn't resist testing one of my possible interpretations of the musical notation from the stele. I'm sorry the noise bothered you. "

"Quite a strange noise, by the way," the student added as he closed his book, curious but mostly hoping to pass some time by prompting the collector to monologue about his favorite subject.

"Probably an ocarina. An instrument from the Andes Mountains," Klein said, looking deeply bored.

A slight blush went up Lacroix's neck, visibly annoyed that he was being cut off. He took out a small clay instrument from one of his pockets, as one would have done with a fob watch. Ashcroft couldn't help but smile; the image their interlocutor gave was that of a man more concerned with music than with time. "It is true that a recorder would be more versatile, but I must admit that this little instrument is very conveniently sized. The sound is also softer and less annoying to my… potential listeners."

"Could you demonstrate it for us?" asked De Corbiac, folding his newspaper and sitting down on a chair, in a manner that Ashcroft considered highly inappropriate.

The collector covered two holes under the instrument with his thumbs, and played the first measures of Au Clair de la Lune. De Corbiac seemed genuinely interested; perhaps his ignorance was less due to a lack of natural curiosity than to the fact he preferred to see things with his own eyes rather than to stick to the theory of a tedious volume. Klein had thought it best to dive back into the book he had been reading, but still seemed to be listening with a distracted ear.

Lacroix continued, "Some collectors never bother to understand what they are trying to collect relentlessly; quite a sad state of mind, if you ask me. My quest for ancient forms of musical notation encourages me to decipher all kinds of documents, and test the result on the fly; therefore I appreciate having an instrument that fits in my pocket." He played a few measures of a melody that Ashcroft could not identify, but whose tune seemed exotic to him. "Did you know that the Hindus also have a seven-note scale, very similar to ours? Their names in southern India are sa, ri, ga, ma, pa, da, and ni. Each one is supposed to represent the sound made by an animal." He blew into the ocarina again. "This C is called sa, and its animal is the peacock. We are talking about a very old form of music, which has endured from ancient times to the present day."

He played a few more measures of the same melody. When he finished, De Corbiac clapped his hands, clearly under the spell of the little man with glasses. "Lacroix, how can we thank you? Here we were, prisoners of a boring mansion, and here you are with your clay flute, transporting us to the land of spices, elephants and snake charmers without even leaving this living-room!" He stood up and gestured exaggeratedly to the carpet, like Mr. Loyal announcing the arrival of the artists. "I could see you from here with a turban on your head, playing for the peacocks in vests that we are, in some mysterious jungle that would have invaded this house."

"There are hardly any jungles in South India," muttered Klein, who had nevertheless been polite enough to put his book down at last. De Corbiac ignored him.

"Ah, how I wish I had this new invention to keep a souvenir of this afternoon," he concluded, opening the newspaper again to show what he was talking about - a new model of needle phonograph that could record voices and music on special cylinders by engraving them. "But perhaps this is better, isn't it? Memories are often more beautiful than the drawings we want to make of them in the moment."

Lacroix wrinkled his nose as he observed the diagram of the new device. His reaction was surprising to Ashcroft, who thought that the existence of such an object would make the study of music much easier in the future, if it were to become more widespread and affordable. "I do not like this," said the collector.

"Oh? And why is that?" inquired their host.

"Well, I have already seen some of those fairground phonographs that play a tune if you are willing to put a dime in them. But this goes much further. We are talking about recording, on the spot, any music that one might hear, and playing it back at home. What will happen to orchestras if they only have to play a symphony once, which can then be recreated by anyone with a device the size of a small table?"
"Well, I suppose the actual experience is far more rewarding than looking at a device standing on a piece of furniture."

"I suppose so, sir, but I am still worried."

"Oh, come on."

"The pace at which such things are being discovered, in particular, worries me. We are heading towards a world where musicians are going to disappear."

"Lacroix, my dear, you are rambling. A machine can certainly imitate an orchestra, but it cannot invent a symphony. It has no imagination, it is only an instrument without a musician to operate it, a blank sheet of paper without a composer to write on it."

"For the moment."

Klein leaned forward in his seat a little more, as he did every time he decided to get more involved in a conversation. "You'll have to get used to it, my friend. We're living in a world where everything is going faster, but where nothing really interesting is going to be created anymore. Science is unraveling the very last mysteries of the things around us, art is just going round and round in circles to the point that even excess is no longer surprising, and there is no land left to explore on Earth, no mountains left to conquer, no oceans left to cross."

"There is still the South Pole left," suggested Ashcroft.

The traveler snorted. "And what do you think you're going to find there? Frostbite, no doubt? Ross himself declared the whole continent to be of no scientific interest."

Ashcroft did not want to admit defeat. "Moreover, I am not convinced by your assertion about science. Considerable medical progress is already being made."

"Again, what for?"

"Well, to live better and longer lives, of course."

"What a joy! The ineffable boredom of life, but longer."

"I did see you with a pillbox just last night."

Klein's smile vanished as quickly as a bubble on the surface of a pond. Ashcroft did not know whether to rejoice because he touched a nerve or to curse himself for having committed some blunder. However, the smile blossomed again on his interlocutor's face after a second or two of hesitation. It seemed somewhat carnivorous this time.

"It's quite different. I have to take sleeping pills, otherwise I can only sleep for two hours at most. By the way, I've heard that taking too many of them reduces the number of years I have left to live! In a way, it is true that your modern medicine is miraculous. Finally a remedy for this sickness called existence!"

"The Greeks had the same word for medicine and poison, you know. It's all about dosage."

"As for everything in this world, say uninteresting people. I'm more of an advocate of excess."

"That goes without saying."

The words had left Ashcroft's lips before he was able to hold them back, and he regretted them as soon as he said them. It was quite possible that everyone present would be forced to spend several more days under the same roof, and if there was one person he didn't want to alienate, it was Klein.

Fortunately, the latter burst out laughing. "I'm very flattered that an orchidoclast like you thinks I'm too much, it confirms I'm on the right track!"

Ashcroft had never heard that word, but it was certainly an insult of some sort. However, he did not want to escalate the situation any further and decided not to reply.

Lacroix, bless him, took advantage of the brief silence that followed to bring the conversation back to his passion. He stood up to show the student a page of his notebook, where he had sketched (rather awkwardly, but nevertheless quite legibly) some sort of rectangle covered with circular inscriptions. The opposite page was covered with staves and notes.

"Here is a sketch of the stele that I have in my trunk. Of course, I can't decipher it right now, but even if you merely read the dots as literal notes, you can still get something quite interesting out of it. Just listen."

The same tune that could be heard through the walls the night before filled the living room. It sounded wrong; either the interpretation of the signs did not correspond at all to the original meaning, or the artistic sensibility of their author was very different from the standards to which the occupants of the house were accustomed.

"I don't think that's the real tune," Glass declared, frowning.

Glass? How long had he been downstairs? Or should it be 'she'?

Ashcroft, who really didn't want to think about this last question, put it back in a corner of his mind, like an embarrassing present that one doesn't want to get rid of but still regularly finds when tidying up their room.

"Neither do I," Lacroix replied without seeming the least bit surprised by this sudden appearance.

Glass pulled a second notebook out of his own pocket – looking at its damaged spine and the state of its edge, it seemed to have very few blank pages left. "Can I help you work on deciphering it?"

Lacroix's smile might have been more blinding than the snows of Antarctica.

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After dinner, when small drinks and cigars were beginning to follow each other in an increasingly smoky atmosphere, and after their host had once again brought out a bottle of liqueur from who knows where, Lacroix and Glass sat down together in a corner of the living room to work on deciphering the engravings of the stele. De Corbiac, for his part, was trying to pry some exotic story out of Klein, having understood from his earlier remark about jungles that he had traveled to India at some point during his mysterious wanderings. The man soon admitted he had witnessed a tiger hunt, and had also traveled on the back of an elephant, but the way he told these fantastical events lacked life and passion. It also seemed to be a rather old memory for him. Ashcroft wondered if they were not anecdotes from his younger years, which must have enchanted him at the time, but which the weary, fatalistic fin de siècle mentality he had displayed on many occasions already, no doubt acquired later in life, had repainted with dullness and ennui.

Something must have happened in his life to change him so much, thought Ashcroft. It was hard to believe that one could go from a teenager who was amazed at riding an elephant to a disillusioned adult who laughed at the toxicity of his own drugs just for the sake of an affectation, or simply to mimic the general mood of the decadent parties in Paris.

De Corbiac, a little too disheveled for it to be part of his usually skillfully controlled appearance of debauchery, was nevertheless drinking in his words and had apparently momentarily given up being the center of attention. He stood up to pick up an issue of the newspaper L'Illustration and opened it to a page depicting some sort of temple, overgrown with trees. "Have you been here?"

Klein snorted, as he usually did when something amused him. "Do you just look at the pictures without even reading the articles? This place is in Indochina, hundreds of miles from India. Not all jungles are in the same place, you know?"

Every such remark seemed to slide over the dandy like water over a duck's feathers. "What do you think happened to this civilization, for it to become engulfed in the forest like this? Were they ruined by useless wars? A terrible disease, perhaps? If I weren't so incredulous, divine retribution would be a possibility."

"It would be the work of a very lazy god, then," Klein added, clearly enjoying a conversation for the first time all evening. "Some of them strike with lightning, others send a flood, but this one preferred to wait centuries to patiently cultivate his garden, like a grandmother pruning her rose bushes."

Ashcroft suddenly thought of great pox patients, backs becoming covered with pink petal-like spots over the years, before the disease attacked the joints, nerves, organs, bones, sometimes over the course of decades before the patient finally succumbed. He had seen the skull of a man who had died after years of this disfiguring ordeal; the bone was so irregular and porous that it looked as if it had been lying at the bottom of the ocean for centuries.

"Isn't that a much worse punishment?" he suggested. "To spend years in agony, rather than dying suddenly? Of course, we're talking about an entire civilization, not just one person, but if you were to meet someone suffering from an incurable disease inflicted by some exotic deity, you'd probably think that would be a very devious and cruel god."

Curiously, Lacroix twitched in the middle of his writing. Klein, for his part, displayed once again the feverish smile he reserved for his most horrifying anecdotes.

"You wanted a story from the Far East, gentlemen? I had the opportunity to visit Siam, a country where all kinds of very refined products are available. What I didn't know until I was told about it was that this refinement also extended to the methods used to interrogate scoundrels. Do you know that a young bamboo tree can grow an inch per hour through all kinds of obstacles? You'd better believe that tying an enemy agent right above this kind of plant suddenly makes him very, very talkative."

"And if it does not?"

"Well, I guess you'd get a particularly morbid garden ornament, but also a good conversation piece at a social event."

He blew the smoke from his cigar straight up, like a tree, to illustrate his point.

"Have you ever seen a bonsai tree, sir?" Glass asked, having left the study table without anyone noticing, and lit one of those new American cigarettes. The question seemed directed, curiously, at De Corbiac.

"It is one of those tiny Japanese ornamental trees, isn't it?" he said, turning on his heels to face his new interlocutor. Ashcroft smiled, thinking that the information had most certainly come from the same issue of the Illustration that he had opened earlier, but the next part of the conversation surprised him. "I saw some of those at the World's Fair in Paris four years ago. Unfortunately, they were not for sale, but that might be for the best, after all. I am a really terrible gardener. Their dimensions were remarkable, a real miniature forest."

"Absolutely. The process requires pruning the branches and roots of a tree planted in a very small pot, far too narrow for it to grow naturally. In some cases, however, the tree still manages to produce flowers and even bear fruit despite these circumstances."

"I suppose it is possible to be happy in a very small pot, and to thrive in it."

"Some hardly manage to do so, and become bitter and shrivelled no matter how talented their gardener."

Abruptly, Ashcroft realised that they weren't really talking about bonsai anymore.

"All this is irrelevant as long as the tree is just growing in a living room, unaware of what another member of its species really looks like," Glass continued, now staring at a painting of a wooded landscape hanging on the wall, one of those domesticated forests crisscrossed with lanes to ride in. "Imagine, however, replanting one of these twisted, tiny trees in the jungle where they are supposed to grow to towering proportions. If the larger trees could speak, they would scream in horror at the monstrosity their companion has become after so many years planted in the wrong place."

Ashcroft pretended to go back to reading his book on the history of transport to avoid taking part in the confrontation. He still heard a cigar being crushed in an ashtray, looked just in time to see Klein getting up from his seat, and expected to see him leaving the living room, offended.

Instead, he found that the traveler was planting himself right in front of Glass, at a distance that could have been counted with a schoolboy's ruler; the gynander was staring straight at him, completely unperturbed, as if he were just another painting of dubious taste.

Klein leaned over to his ear and whispered - loudly enough, however, to be heard by everyone - "Be very careful, my dear, to put on gloves when you decide to prune a shrub belonging to a poisonous variety."

With that, he left the living room. A few seconds later, a door slammed somewhere on the first floor.

"Too bad he took it so badly," sighed De Corbiac. "Quite a witty and philosophical dig. For my part, Glass, I'm very flattered that you would compare me to a little potted plant thriving in a smoky living room. Feel free to do it again."

Glass gave a small laugh and returned to the table next to Lacroix, who seemed so engrossed in his study of the mysterious stone circles that he had not followed a single word of the discussion.

Ashcroft's gaze fell back on the page he had been reading so absent-mindedly for the last few minutes; it was about the invention of the wheel.

He looked up again, addressing his companions at the study table.

"If I may, I think I might have a new hypothesis; let's imagine that these circles are not musical notation in the sense you meant, but a diagram describing different sections of a cylinder, or several wheels?"

Lacroix slowly put down his pencil and turned to face him. "Please elaborate."

"Well, we were talking earlier about a cylinder phonograph. Let's imagine an instrument, like a cranked music box, with several wheels in which something was stuck, represented by the points of the diagram…"

"Yes… Yes, indeed. In this case, each circle would represent a single note… but repeated multiple times over the course of the melody."

Glass took a drag on his cigarette, seeming to share their sudden enlightenment. "This is not sheet music. It is a construction diagram, an instruction manual." His right hand grabbed the ocarina. "Assuming the first circle is the frequency of occurrence of C… may I?"

"Be my guest."

The tune was completely different this time. Lacroix was taking notes with the speed of a man possessed.

Outside, the rain finally stopped.

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Chapter 3: Where the eggs are not what they seem to be

This time, Ashcroft's night turned out to be quite restless. Someone, somewhere, was not sleeping, and was manufacturing something, if the faint sounds of a knife cutting a piece of wood were anything to go by - sounds that had invaded his first dream, populating it with birds displaying beaks resembling some carpenter's tools. A second dream, in particular, stuck in his mind in those floating minutes before the real awakening; a dream in which the pheasants from the tapestry on the wall, injured by the dog, had come out of the landscape and taken refuge in the room where he was sleeping. They were fraying all over the place, and their blood was embroidering red dots on the sheets. Instead of being horrified, he watched them with a certain detachment, and wondered how he would explain the state of the bed to the servant later.

When he opened his eyes for good, however, something had definitely changed in the room.

The first thing that struck him was the smell, the same sweet smell as the day before in the library, but stronger. However, it was only after he went to open the window that he noticed that growths had appeared on the wooden frame of the bed.

This was impossible. The wood must have been dead for decades. And yet, it almost looked like…

"Buds? "

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"There's some here, too," Klein's voice confirmed outside the front door.

"On the window-sills, as well."

"Recently lacquered or varnished objects seem to have been spared."

"Thomas, what news from the village?"

"The line is down, sir. Do you think it advisable for me to walk there?"

"I'd prefer to know you are safe here with us."

De Corbiac seemed less concerned than intrigued by this new development. He was wearing a quite incongruous purple scarf today, and had taken the time to dress as smartly as usual, where in his anxiety Ashcroft had for the moment been content to only put on a shirt and trousers.

"Come and see," Glass called out to them from the other side of the house, the one that overlooked the lake.

The expanse of tall grass that separated them from the water had become overgrown with new plants, seemingly overnight. Eerie, almost black-brown leaves opened atop twisted stems. The sweet smell was overpowering.

The horse, perhaps for this last reason, had fled during the night.

A debate ensued about the origin of the phenomenon. Lacroix suggested that the heavy rain of the previous day had perhaps brought seeds from another continent. Klein was leaning toward chemical poisoning of the soil by a local factory. Ashcroft feared an unknown disease that would have spread to the woodwork of the house. De Corbiac spoke, with his characteristic incredulity and humor, of a new version of the plagues of Egypt, sent to punish the loose morals of the end of the century.

Despite the joking, there was a warlike atmosphere around the breakfast table - a gloom and tension that continued until after lunch and late into the afternoon, the only real distraction being Lacroix, who had dived back into his research with renewed zeal, and was regularly repeating variations of the ancient tune aloud or on his ocarina. From time to time, Thomas passed by with a file or a gouge to remove the strange growths and polish the woodwork.

"There must be an explanation for this phenomenon," Ashcroft finally ventured in the middle of a silence, emboldened by his scientific curiosity. "It's a pity that with all the talents gathered under this roof, none of us is a botanist. A music historian, a globe-trotter, a doctor… Glass, I don't seem to recall that you really told us what your work was about. Weren't you mentioning some research the other day?"

Glass seemed surprised that somebody remembered this detail. "Let's just say I'm looking for someone."

"So you’re an intelligence agent?"

"There's been a misunderstanding. I am self-employed."

"Who are you trying to find for your own account, then?"

"That's a bit of a personal question, don't you think?"

Ashcroft was not satisfied with this answer and blushed slightly, but decided to leave it at that, fearing that he might be rude. After all, perhaps it really was too intimate a matter to be brought out in the open in a living room.

He looked at the strange plants outside again - it seemed to him that they had grown in the short time he hadn't been looking at them. "How I wish I had a microscope with me," he sighed.

Klein was amused by this remark. "And what would you like to prove with it? I can picture you examining one of these leaves more closely and exclaiming like a modern Archimedes "Eureka! It was indeed a leaf!""

Ashcroft couldn't help but chuckle. Seen from this angle, it would not help them much, he had to admit.

"The speed at which these plants appeared and grew is truly amazing," Lacroix admitted, looking up from his frantic notes, for once. "There is a mystery there."

"Scientists more gifted than ourselves will no doubt provide us with answers in the next few days," said the student.

"Don't think you can find an explanation for everything," objected Klein.

"Wasn't it you who only yesterday were claiming that science had nothing left to discover, Klein?"

"Oh, in order to fully believe that, you have to feed on certainties. Only scientists are certain. This world actually makes very little sense, and travelers like myself know that there are things on this Earth that reason cannot always explain."

His tone suggested menace rather than amusement, and Ashcroft decided not to contradict him on this matter, at least for the time being.

Their host chose this precise moment to burst into the room, looking as nonchalant as ever, but with the air of a fairground vendor about to present a new kind of miracle cure and looking forward to it. Ashcroft noticed that he had already changed his scarf, and added a leaf-shaped pin to keep it from slipping off. "My dear friends, I couldn't help but notice a certain gloom in these premises ever since we woke up! It is true that no one knows what the future holds - will this strange phenomenon stop? Will this house become a haven in the middle of some new kind of jungle? Is the world about to end tomorrow? Is this all just a bad dream?"

He accompanied this speech, as usual, with gestures that were as complicated as they were useless; however, the student had to admit that theatricality, in this case, was a good thing, and somewhat de-dramatized the situation by transforming it into a spectacle.

"No one can predict it!"exclaimed De Corbiac, executing a slight bow. "In such troubled times, I can only turn to a master thinker, one of the greatest of our century, and exclaim…" He then grabbed a bottle, which he had apparently hidden behind a lamp, and brandishing it in one hand as if it were a sword, declaimed: "It is time to get drunk! In order not to be the martyred slaves of Time, get drunk; get drunk all the time! With wine, poetry or virtue, as you wish!"

"Charles Baudelaire!"added Klein, whom for once this little routine seemed to enchant.

"Absolutely! Paris Spleen!" De Corbiac enthused. "And being myself a poor poet of more than questionable virtue, I am forced to go with the first possibility. Thomas! Drinks for everyone, please! Yes yes, for you too, my good man."

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Two drinks were already one and a half too many for Ashcroft; at university, his friends often asked him, as a joke, why he didn't join a temperance society. To tell the truth, he regretted that the French didn't have a well-defined version of the concept of teetotalism - apparently, the local equivalent of the word was abstème, but so far, every person he'd used it with had looked at him as if he'd fallen from the moon. Since then, he preferred to politely refuse what was offered to him rather than explaining it, most of the time.

This was very difficult to do in the present situation, as the atmosphere of the house did not help to maintain his good resolutions - admittedly, these were dictated by his personal convictions of health and hygiene rather than by any kind of religion, but he still felt as if he was getting out of line even when he was refusing more than half of the drinks.

So, this was what was called peer pressure, wasn't it?

Fortunately, it was to Thomas that De Corbiac handed a third bottle that had just been opened, and not to Ashcroft. In spite of the decidedly strange customs under this roof and his master's misplaced carelessness with regard to his position as a servant, the man had tried to keep a modicum of distance, no doubt fearing that he would lose his position if he made a faux pas. "No thank you, sir," he said as he cautiously rose from his chair, "if sir will allow, I'll go tend to the rooms instead."

"No sir tonight, please, Thomas; I'd even tell you to take your leave and go about your business in the village to take care of your mother if we weren't all stuck here like lunatics in an asylum. To hell with social classes on this eve of the end of the world," declaimed the dandy, making his glass swing dangerously, "the rooms will wait."

Thomas obviously thought either that the rooms would not wait, or that it would be wiser for him to take refuge elsewhere under this excuse. Ashcroft felt a little sorry for him.

"To hell with social classes, De Corbiac? After all the trouble you probably went through to add a particle to your family name?" whispered Klein, who despite several drinks still seemed sober as a judge.

The expression on De Corbiac's face, on the other hand, indicated that the gears of his mind, which were usually very lively, were currently hampered by alcohol and sputtering like a broken engine to try to come up with an answer. He simply laughed, then clarified: "My father, rest his soul, following the family custom of acquiring everything that catches the eye, bought himself a particle in the last years of the monarchie de Juillet. I inherited it like one would an old-fashioned trinket, I'm afraid. But rather than fear, it is disappointment that I feel when I see that you, Klein, are hardly a happy drunk."

A strange cracking sound was heard somewhere in the room. Ashcroft sincerely hoped that the phenomenon, whatever it was, was not attacking the frame of the house.

"Unfortunately, it would take a lot more than that to bring me down," boasted the traveler. "Something more… shall we say… aggressive and exotic."

Lacroix emitted a high-pitched sound that was meant to be mocking, but mainly betrayed his state of inebriation: "Eh! From Paris Spleen to Artificial Paradises, I see. Green jam, ether, opium, and all that stuff. It's all very overrated. I tasted it in my youth; I had been sold an incomparable dream, and I just got very sick."

"It's not so much a question of dreaming as it is of sheer stupefaction," Klein justified himself. "The human condition is sometimes so unbearable that it's nice to take a break from it once in a while. For instance, because of my chronic insomnia, I sometimes enjoy the luxury of inhaling something oriental on a Monday and not waking up until Wednesday."

"The luxury of some is the war of others," Glass said thoughtfully, patting the golden head still resting on the mantelpiece, no doubt evoking the opium wars in China.

"Eh, that's quite inevitable; there are people in this world who are incapable of knowing what is good for them, others have to take the matter into their own hands."

"And what if I were to say that artificial paradises are not good for you, Klein?"

"I would advise you, in that case, dear American mirror, not to touch my pillbox. Isn't that right, doctor?" he added, turning to Ashcroft. "Oh, excuse me, I'm getting a little ahead of myself: future doctor."

The student tried to remember his lessons on the application of hypnotics. "Well… it is true that the poppy family is used to induce drowsiness in patients."

For the first time in their stay, Klein's amused smile contained no trace of malice. "I take back everything I said before about the lack of nobility of your studies, my friend! Your vocation is obviously a gift from heaven."

Without warning, Lacroix rose from his chair, as if on a sudden whim, and pointed a reproachful finger at Glass. Ashcroft couldn't help but laugh; the man reminded him of a school teacher about to hand out bad points. "Speaking of things you should not touch," he enunciated with some difficulty, "I would appreciate it if you'd stop going through my things behind my back. If you want to admire the stele, just ask me nicely."

Glass laughed, too gracefully for the situation, and set about fixing the gaffe: "I apologize. That thing fascinates me too much, and I'm afraid I couldn't help myself. To be quite honest with you, I also read a lot of the notes in another notebook, which you keep upstairs. Very informative, if a bit cryptic, diagrams."

Ashcroft couldn't help but be surprised that the gynander would consider anything cryptic; he had so far mentally attributed to him a form of omniscience that went hand in hand with his general behaviour.

Or perhaps the diagrams were not so cryptic and this was just calculated to flatter Lacroix. Judging by his reaction, it was working. "If you are talking about the musical bracelet, I'm afraid I'm not its inventor ; however, if you know him, I wouldn't say no to getting to meet him. Quite remarkable." He sank back into his chair, looking reassured: "At least you had the decency not to go through my clothes! I might as well warn you in advance, they would hardly be flattering on your person."

"Wouldn't they?" Glass pretended to question as he tinkled his fingernails on his drink. "Fashion is such a volatile thing that no one can tell what shape it will take in a few years. Perhaps your oversized clothes would look avant-garde on me then."

"For once, I have to side with you," Klein admitted with a smile, "especially since, as a possible disciple of Mr. Oscar Wilde, you must be more aware than I am of the trends of the metropolitan milieu and the thousand ways to counteract them."

"Where is this idea coming from?"

"Well, wasn't it Wilde who encouraged ladies to wear men's clothes in his articles? Aren't you wearing men's pants?"

"Aren't you wearing men's pants yourself, Klein?"

Ashcroft coughed to conceal a chuckle, which became increasingly difficult as Klein finished his drink to keep his composure instead of replying. De Corbiac, on the other hand, did not try to hide his reaction in the slightest and burst out laughing so loudly that one could have sworn the stone eggs were shaking in their bowl on the mantelpiece. He raised his glass again: "A toast! A toast to those cross-dressing ladies, to those spies in petticoats, to those damsels of Maupin who still find ways to shock the most dissolute! Ah, I don't pretend to understand anything about that whole business, my dear Glass, but I can appreciate a good joke."

The gynander mirrored the gesture with a smile. Ashcroft wondered why Glass's cross-dressing disturbed him so much. He didn't think of himself as particularly prudish - just shy and polite - but every time he was pondering on that particular detail, his brain screamed at him to think about anything else. De Corbiac, on the other hand, seemed to see Glass as an additional source of amusement; Klein, if his reactions were to be believed, had ceased to find that funny or pleasant on the first evening when he had been brought down a peg or two, and Lacroix… well, it seemed that Lacroix divided all things in life into two categories: those related to his passion, and the others, which he was content to ignore.

The sinister cracking sound was heard again.

"Speaking of Mr. Wilde, I am reminded of a very witty quote from him that someone repeated to me at a party," De Corbiac added: "Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months."

"I don't have the pleasure of knowing him either," sighed Glass. "I'm not as sociable as some of you seem to think I am, and people tend to forget I exist as soon as I slip out of a room."

"Yet you hardly go unnoticed."

"Think of it as a form of personal curse. Like Mr. Wilde, I have to present various masks to the world, and to change them frequently in order to achieve my goals."

"Rather than a curse, I would say that is a pretty good summary of modern society."

Ashcroft glanced in Klein's direction. Like he did on their first evening here, he seemed to be inspecting Glass in an unhealthily lascivious way again. Uncomfortable, the student preferred to look at Lacroix, who, he only now realised, had fallen asleep after one too many drinks.

He was about to go and wake him up to help him walk to his room when a bird's song was heard.

Not from the other side of the window, but in the middle of the smoky living room.

An incredulous silence fell over the fairly intoxicated group.

Up there, on the light fixture, was a small green bird which looked like a warbler, except that it-

"What the hell-"

"Do you see it too?"

"Evidently, we're all sharing the same delusion."

"Impossible."

"Translucent! Look at it! You can see the ceiling through it!"

The impossible bird, as if in mockery, sang again and took refuge atop a cupboard.

Green and transparent, like jade, Ashcroft thought. Exactly like…

"Look at the mantelpiece! "he exclaimed.

Two other birds, one pink like a quartz, the other tawny like a tiger's eye, were preening their feathers, perched on the bowl containing the stone eggs.

Three of them were broken.

With a trembling hand, he chased the winged apparitions away, and gently took the remaining black egg in the palm of his hand. It was already cracked. Glass was silently examining the broken stone shells, with a disarming smile that only made Ashcroft panic more.

The egg he was holding made another cracking sound. He himself began to scream internally.

"This is impossible," he repeated as if to convince himself, "this is thoroughly impossible."

Dissipating what little rationality remained in the individual who was currently warming it, the fourth egg hatched and let out a tiny jet-black bird, with stone feathers that slid over each other like the work of a mad watchmaker trying to imitate life. But an automaton, no matter how perfect, always had some discernible mechanism, some subterfuge. This was life itself, Ashcroft had known it as soon as he had held it in his hands; an impossible life, born of an inert and cold stone, of dead matter, absolutely dead, but which existed nevertheless, and was flying right before their eyes.

De Corbiac slapped himself loudly. The bird, like its three companions, stubbornly continued to exist.

"This time, I admit I have to side with you, Klein," Glass said at last, breaking the silence that was only interrupted by chirping sounds ; "There are, indeed, things on this Earth that reason cannot always explain."

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Chapter 4: Where old behemoths have a role to play

If the previous night had been bad, this one could not even be called a night. To begin with, after hours spent trying and failing to catch the living stone birds, they had to resolve to let them fly freely through the house. It was only then that someone noticed that some of the furniture had fused with the floor and formed a sort of root system extending outside of the house; when he had opened a door to check this, Lacroix had unfortunately let one of the birds escape.

A long debate ensued about what to do and whether it was safe to stay put. Just as it was agreed that walking across the fields in complete darkness was a very bad idea and that it would be better to wait until daylight, a door slammed at half an hour past midnight; it turned out that Thomas had decided to take up De Corbiac's earlier offer of some time off quite literally, at the risk of losing his job, and had left with his best boots and the only hurricane lamp in the entire house. They had to resolve, after a second debate, to finally go to sleep.

In the middle of the night, as Ashcroft stared desperately at the ceiling, trying to sleep through it all, someone, somewhere, started to play music again. This time it sounded like strings, and it was coming from outside.

It was a variation of the tune they had decoded from the stele.

There was some movement on the first floor, and someone left in a hurry. Ashcroft opened his bedroom window to try to get a better look at what was going on, but the night was particularly dark. Eventually he heard Lacroix call Glass and ask him what sounded like a question. A barely audible (but very animated) discussion ensued, during which he realised he could also hear a constant hissing sound outside. It didn't sound exactly like water, nor did it sound quite like something an animal could make; nor did there seem to be enough wind to produce this kind of noise in the trees.

A distant memory surfaced in his mind - that of his grandfather, in England, showing him a shed where he was growing rhubarb in the dark. The stalks of the plants were seeking the light in vain and were growing straight up, at such a speed that if one paid close attention, it was even possible to hear them growing, with a muffled hissing sound interspersed with cracking noises. Ashcroft, still very young, had found this very disturbing, and for some years afterwards he had been unable to enjoy one of his grandmother's rhubarb pies without thinking of those demonic plants rustling in the dark.

This exact sound, exaggerated and multiplied, now completely surrounded the house, enveloping it just as well as the night did.

The enormity of the situation finally began to sink in. The phenomenon that was affecting this place was incomprehensible, and it seemed to be getting worse. Every day it was becoming more difficult to leave the area; perhaps it was already too late. He had no way of contacting the outside world or seeking help, apart from venturing on foot through the mysterious plants, which had certainly covered the entirety of the dirt road by now, which was already borderline impassable when they first arrived. A dull anguish knotted his stomach. He would have to find a solution first thing tomorrow morning, and he resolved to talk about it with Lacroix as soon as possible, since the man seemed to be the individual most likely to listen to his opinion under this roof.

He noticed the discussion had stopped. A door closed on the ground floor, but Ashcroft heard only one person coming up the stairs and returning to their room.

He could not bring himself to close the window until some kind of vine grown from the previous day's buds began to brush against his hand.

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At the dawn of the fourth day, the lake began to boil.

There was no other way to describe it. Lacroix and Ashcroft, armed with walking sticks to break the stems of the anomalous plants (some of which, however, were beginning to resemble small trees), had both braved the hostile world outside the house and sought to get a better look at what was altering the surface of the water; they had discovered a brackish expanse studded with putrefied fish, constantly agitated by huge bubbles bursting the surface, like soup in the pot of some ancient bonesetter. A frog as big as a boot, covered with strange appendages reminiscent of very small fingers, jumped into this horrifying mire just as Lacroix decreed that they had better go back inside, lest the miasma from the lake contain some unknown microbe linked to the phenomenon.

When they returned, they were surprised to see De Corbiac offering them tea and, for lack of fresh bread, some cookies he had found in a cupboard. "Please forgive me for this improvised breakfast in Thomas' absence," he apologized. "I hope the tea isn't too brewed."

In the meantime, Klein, who had decided to check the viability of the road by cutting some of the plants with a collector's sword lent by their host, returned in a terrible mood and announced that a sort of repulsive swamp had formed in that direction. Its sudden and rapid growth suggested that Thomas had chosen the right moment to leave the place. From the traveler's descriptions, the trees felled several days ago by the storm had apparently found a second life and now formed some sort of aberrant mangrove; Lacroix suggested fleeing through the nearby woods on foot rather than venturing in the dubious water without knowing what it contained. Ashcroft, for his part, felt overcome with fatalism, and Glass seemed to have disappeared altogether.

The morning passed in anxious torpor, and soon no one was talking about fleeing the place anymore. No one objected when their host simply offered them a coffee for lunch, so knotted were their stomachs. Everyone then settled back in the living room and, rather than confronting their own inaction, decided to open yet another bottle of alcohol drawn from the seemingly infinite reserves of the house.

"1892 is a very poor date for the end of the world," De Corbiac remarked after a long silence, watching a table take root very slowly into the floor, before turning his gaze to a portrait whose paint had, inexplicably, started to spill out of its frame. "1899! 1900! The year one thousand, the year two thousand! Those are dates that give a mystical aura to the apocalypse."

"So collapse all empires in these times, as you said, I suppose," said Klein; "choked by jungle, fogged by tobacco, and knocked out by alcohol fumes."

"With a tune written on a thousand-year-old stone found on the other side of the continent as their requiem," added Lacroix.

"The bones of the world are very old, and we are only temporary tenants," Glass continued.

That's right, Ashcroft thought, Glass was back in the living room again. He had stopped marveling at his ability to slip into a setting completely unnoticed.

"If we're only tenants, I'd have a word with the landlord," snickered De Corbiac, who kept finding something to joke about in all circumstances; "the foundation is rotten, the frame's not much better, and I think I've seen a couple of rats up there," he said, running a hand through his hair. With that kind of macabre humor, he would have made a killing with his last words at a medieval public execution, Ashcroft mused. The man would probably have been convicted of gross indecency, he added mentally as he noticed that once again the suit his host was wearing was a disaster, partially unbuttoned and wrinkled.

Klein downed his glass in one gulp and set it on the tray. "What a pleasure to have you back with us, Glass. Is your little game going smoothly so far?"

"Excuse me?" inquired Glass. Ashcroft noticed that his hands were covered with strange marks, not like wounds, but more like the kind of marks you would get from wearing something too tight, or writing for a long time with a penholder - but then, why were they all over his fingers?

"Don't play the innocent," said the traveler, lowering his voice; it seemed to happen whenever he sought to make a threat. "This is your work, isn't it? I heard you playing Lacroix's music outside last night."

"I'm afraid I'm not following you."

"I don't know how you're doing it, or how it all works, but it's you. You are the reason we are all stuck here in the middle of this madness."

"I believe, my dear fellow, that you have had too much to drink."

"Regrettably, sweetheart, there isn't enough alcohol in this room to make me lose my lucidity. I don't know what kind of pagan god you serve or what goal you're pursuing, but you've decided to sacrifice us all to achieve it."

"You're rambling, Klein," Glass sighed.

The jade bird flew across the living room, chasing some kind of fly which made an unusual whirring sound. It landed on the wallpaper, and Ashcroft noticed that it was the same gold as the Buddha head on the mantelpiece. On closer inspection, several of the statue's curls were missing.

The idea that someone could corrupt and transform their entire environment by playing a simple melody was completely absurd, of course, but nothing seemed to have much connection to reality anymore; come to think of it, Glass's absences were certainly highly suspicious, but Klein was also being particularly aggressive, so Ashcroft refrained from intervening on behalf of either of them.

The silence grew heavy.

"Do you want to play cards?" Lacroix ventured.

Everyone stared at him in bewilderment.

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"I was thinking about what you were saying earlier about bones," De Corbiac said, picking up the cards he had just been dealt. "About the age of the world."

They were playing their third game of tarot, and the tension had eased somewhat thanks to Lacroix's suggestion. Ashcroft didn't have a very good hand and was still too tense to fully concentrate on the game or the conversation.

"A little while ago I saw some illustrations in the newspaper, showing bones of some antediluvian animals of extraordinary size," added their host. "Isn't it strange that such massive beasts have disappeared, but that we still exist when the human species is so ingeniously ill-conceived?"

"I've heard people sometimes find mastodons caught whole in the ice," Glass dodged, playing a card. "And the American Badlands are full of monstrous skeletons. Gigantic reptiles, frozen for eternity in the rock, they who must have once shaken the earth."

"Perhaps they died suddenly in some great disaster," Ashcroft added, wanting to be helpful, "or perhaps they were too heavy, too slow, too dumb."

"Which is what the strange creatures who will discover our corpses, centuries and centuries from now, crushed by the walls of this house, will probably say," Klein concluded as he poured himself another drink. For all his boasting about his alcohol tolerance, he seemed to be finally starting to show some effects.

The day was beginning to wane, or perhaps it was just the lichen that had begun to cover the window panes.

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In desperation at his inability to cook, De Corbiac, who was nonetheless trying to be a decent host, had ransacked the kitchen cupboards and had offered them all kinds of cookies and sweets, haphazardly arranged in saucers, as some sort of improvised dinner. Under different circumstances, the situation would probably have been funny.

At first, Ashcroft was glad that he had only wavered in his resolutions about alcohol rather than sinking altogether, but now that night had fallen and - with the whole household struggling between a dull, lazy anxiety in anticipation of an inevitable end and a certain hysteria brought on by fear of the supernatural – that no one was able to sleep, he really wished he had given in to the siren song of alcohol. He could have used the legendary oblivion that wine was supposed to offer, but the cellar had been locked.

Lacroix had withdrawn to the library (was he still studying at this late hour?), Klein had probably gone upstairs to take his medicine, De Corbiac was slumped over on the living room couch, and Glass had, once again, disappeared. Ashcroft resolved to go to his guest room upstairs, hoping that nothing too horrible had happened to the tapestry with the pheasants.

Two people were talking quietly in the upstairs hallway. He stopped right before he turned the corner of the corridor. Only fragments of sentences were understandable.

"…Involved in… with no intent to… paramount importance," Glass' voice whispered.

"When did you… have any idea what this is all going to…", Klein growled, in a tone so threatening that Ashcroft quietly turned the corner of the hallway, potentially preparing to cough and signal his presence to defuse the situation.

"I can't tell you anything," Glass whispered to the interlocutor who was standing way, way too close to his impassive face. "I'm sorry about that, I really am. Just be assured that tomorrow, all of this will come to an end."

""All of this will come to an end," says the herald of the apocalypse. Extremely reassuring, really."

"I can't promise anything more, Klein."

"Give me one good reason why I shouldn't strangle you here and now."

"Because you know damn well that I'm the only one who can stop the effects of the melody before it starts affecting you."

Klein clenched and unclenched his fists a couple of times in silence, then took a few steps back. He seemed to be thinking, but struggling to make a decision. Ashcroft wondered if he shouldn't go downstairs and wake up De Corbiac so he could call for backup in case of an actual brawl.

"So we're all doomed tomorrow, eh?" the traveler said, lowering his voice again.

Glass took a step toward him and sighed. It was impossible to see his face from this angle in the gloom. "If all goes as expected, no one will die. You misunderstand my inten-"

With the suddenness of a bear trap snapping shut, Klein grabbed Glass by the wrists and slammed him against the wall with his own entire body, with such violence that Ashcroft felt as if he himself had been punched in the rib cage.

"No more alcohol, no more hypnotics," Klein whispered into Glass's neck in a lustful tone that made the student shudder with horror. "No matter. There are other methods to have one last bit of fun before an execution, right?"

Ashcroft still hadn't moved, too shocked by the situation. His feet felt as if they were bolted to the floor. His blood was pounding in his ears. He had to intervene, right now, immediately, but no words could come out of his mouth.

Everything happened with a terrifying speed.

He didn't even have time to see Glass make a move; Klein was already screaming like a banshee, holding one side of his face. He let go of his prey and fell to his knees on the floor, face splattered with his own blood, still screaming; his feet struggled briefly to find support against the carpet before he managed to retreat backwards into his room. Glass, who still hadn't moved, spat something at his feet, then wiped his mouth with his sleeve before heading for the attic stairs.

Lacroix, no doubt alerted by the commotion, emerged from the library just as Ashcroft regained control of his own legs and dashed after Glass.

As he passed the scene of the drama, Ashcroft almost stepped on something organic and bloody, and realised that what he was looking at was an earlobe, torn out with teeth.

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"Glass, are you there? Is anyone there?"

An emotionless voice rose from the gloom near the large attic window. "Nobody. Go away."

The little light that came in through the panes sharply cut out a grey figure wearing a hat. A lit cigarette glowed faintly.

He hesitated.

"Sorry to have dragged you into this," the figure added, seeing that he wasn't leaving.

Ashcroft gently closed the door and approached as one would a caged tiger. "From my point of view, your action seemed… legitimate," he ventured.

Klein could still be heard shouting one floor below.

"I'm not talking about the little altercation in the hallway," the figure said, without elaborating further.

"Glass, are you-"

"I already told you, that's a nickname."

"What name should I give you, then?"

"I don't have any."

The student tried to process this information, but the figure spoke again before he could begin to do so. "I am nobody. I am a mirror. I can only imitate reality for as long as it takes to accomplish something, so that it would be mistaken for the real thing. But there is nothing behind the glass."

The voice still betrayed no emotion. Ashcroft thought that perhaps he himself had been more shaken by the incident than Glass - the nameless person - the Other really was. He thought it safe to take a few more steps. "Did it ever occur to you that we live our entire existence without seeing our true face?" he said to fill the silence. "Mirrors give us a distorted, inverted view of it. The whole world can see what we really look like – everyone but us."

The Other blew out a puff of smoke. "There's something different about you, Ashcroft."

"I am the most mundane person currently under this roof, Glass, and you know that perfectly well."

"Come and sit down. Don't be afraid. I would tell you I don't bite, but we both know that would be a lie."

Hesitantly, Ashcroft sat down, cross-legged, and looked out the window. The panes were covered with unnaturally shaped lichens. "All of this will end tomorrow, isn't that what you said?"

"Indeed. I'm almost done with what I'm here for."

"You said you always went where you were supposed to be."

"It's like something is prompting my lines to me, except it's prompting people, places, situations instead of words. I knew I had to be in that stagecoach, because I knew I had to meet Lacroix, who in turn was going to meet other people who were going to set in motion a sequence of events related to my purpose."

"So you believe in predestination?"

"I don't need to believe in it to find myself where I need to be."

"This is all a bit esoteric."

"If you have a better explanation for what is happening to me, I am all ears."

Ashcroft felt as if he were faced with an unknown disease that he had been asked to cure with an infusion of linden.

After a long silence, the Other spoke again. "Sometimes people say you have to go back to your roots to know what you are and where you're going, but I don't have any, either – one day, I woke up in this body, in a state of great confusion, and ever since then, I have not ceased to pursue a nebulous goal."

"Like all of us," he ventured to reply. "Like every human being. "

A sigh. A puff of a cigarette, as bright as a firefly in a swamp. "I don't know why I'm telling you all this, Ashcroft. Maybe I'm tired. Maybe without realizing it, I'm just reeling from what just happened. Maybe it's even that invisible prompter that's telling me to talk to you to manipulate you because you have a role to play."

"Perhaps there is simply a connection between us."

"My nature makes such a thing highly unlikely. If I disappear tomorrow, no one here will remember that I ever existed. Including you."

"Are you sure about that?"

"Are you so determined to remember me, Ashcroft?"

"I like to think so."

The words had escaped him before he could stop himself. The Other remained unperturbed. The voices on the floor below had quieted.

Ashcroft leaned forward slightly. The face under the hat might as well have been a statue's.

"If you are so sure I am going to forget everything about this conversation very soon, could you please show me your real face?" he ventured.

Silence. A trickle of smoke. The Other finally spoke, after several long seconds. "There is nothing behind the mirror, I have already told you. There is only a succession of roles, of masks assumed by an actor, so many of them that they ended up devouring him. There's nobody left under there."

"Show me that nobody, then," Ashcroft suggested gently.

Silence.

The Other blinked, then turned to face him, and for a few moments the mask fell away, the role disappeared - the smoking mirror became clear glass. Ashcroft recoiled as the face in front of him looked, all of a sudden, so different. Contradictory impressions and feelings rushed through him at full speed.

Looking at the nameless person was like looking at a corpse frozen in an expression of permanent horror, and at a very young child who knows nothing of the woes of the world, lost in an unknown place. A thing capable of great violence as well as great gentleness, haunted by an eternal quest, and an infinite weariness. A creature born from the chaos of the beginning of time, a thing whose existence made no sense and was beyond comprehension, and yet, an insignificant entity, anonymous, marginal, a simple indeterminate spectator condemned to witness everything without ever being anything or anyone himself.

He felt a form of primal terror, and a surge of compassion, as if he were facing one of those antediluvian monsters they had mentioned before dinner, dying of a long, mysterious illness.

He wanted to cure him. He wanted him to disappear. He should have called for help. He wanted to take his hand. He was on the verge of a panic attack. He wanted to run away. He wanted to hug the Other and tell him he was sorry and that everything would be okay.

Which would have been a lie. Nothing would ever be okay.

He wanted to scream.

He wanted to kiss him.

He did neither, and simply watched the nameless face gradually take on a banal and human expression again, a normalcy skilfully studied and worked on, as artificial as the personas cultivated by the decadent individuals he had met these last few days.

The mask was back in place. But behind it, the entity was still looking at him.

He realised he was blushing and looked away.

Neither of them spoke for more than a minute. The cigarette continued to burn slowly between the fingers of the nameless person, who leaned on the floor with his free hand. Ashcroft suddenly felt very weary and fragile.

Hesitantly, he put his hand on the other's, who did not make the slightest gesture to withdraw it.

The silence persisted.

"Nobody," he murmured at last, staring at the greenish panes of the attic window, "Nobody, what are you?"

The nameless person took a drag on his cigarette and blew out a puff of smoke, thoughtfully.

"If you can answer that question, Ashcroft, I will be eternally grateful."

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Chapter 5: Where the gynander becomes a conductor without an audience

Dawn broke on the fifth day in general indifference, everyone having more pressing concerns than the possibility of a breakfast after a second troubled night.

After much negotiation, Klein had agreed to let Ashcroft help him clean and bandage his wounded ear. Their host's medicine cabinet was unfortunately very limited and he had to resort to boiling the bandages to clean them and use the clear liquor they had drunk the first night as a disinfectant.

When he went back downstairs, he heard someone sobbing, and was surprised to realize it was Lacroix. "I didn't mean for it to get this bad, Glass, I swear. I didn't mean any harm. So much research, so much work!"

He entered the living room, where the doors and windows were wide open, letting in interlacing plant life with black, brown, copper, gold leaves, on which all sorts of unnatural insects and birds were perched, made of lacquered wood, precious fabrics, colored stone. An amazing butterfly with wings as transparent as glass flew in front of Ashcroft and landed on the infamous trunk containing the stele.

Lacroix was crying, sitting on what was left of the couch, his glasses in his left hand, his right hand dabbing a handkerchief on his cheeks; the Other was holding his shoulders gently and trying to get his attention by meeting his eyes, as if the collector were a tiny child in the grip of insurmountable grief. "You've seen, as I have, that the method won't work. You have to accept it. To try it would be a desecration. She will not come back."

"There were some local legends, superstitions, talking about a stone with a song of life. I thought… I believed…" stammered Lacroix. "I believed it so hard, you know. I almost wish we had never succeeded in deciphering it."

The Other shook his shoulders, gently but firmly. "The melody won't bring your daughter back, Lacroix. We have to face it. We have to get rid of what we've discovered, now. Imagine your notes leaving this place, being read, copied; someone playing that music again in another place, another time." A new shake of his shoulders, a bit more aggressive this time. "Imagine if someone improved it even more than we already have, if its effect were to spread to human beings next, if someone were to record it on one of these new machines, and let more people hear it. What would happen then?"

The collector did not answer immediately.

Slowly, he dried his tears, put his handkerchief away, put his glasses back on, then took the notebook out of his pocket and handed it to the Other. "Get rid of it for me, please. I won't have the strength."

Ashcroft had walked through the living room and was now in the indistinct space that must have been the doorway to the lake side, but was now overgrown with some sort of half-organic, half-mineral brambles, apparently growing out of the marble of the nearby bathroom. De Corbiac was already outside, staring in awe at what, as recently as three days earlier, had been the lovely grounds surrounding his property.

"The other notebook too, Lacroix," asked the Other inside the living room.

"Ah, no, pardon me," protested the collector, his voice still a little shaky, "this is the notebook where the schematics of the instrument are."

"That's just what I'm trying to get rid of as well," said the nameless person. "As one of you said the other day, there are people in this world who are unable to know what is good for them. Well, I have decided for you. This thing is far too dangerous to let it fall into the wrong hands."

"Except yours," Lacroix muttered. The sound of torn pages could still be heard nevertheless.

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It took them a good fifteen minutes to throw the trunk and all it contained into the lake, which was still bubbling. Everyone acted as if in a trance, and no one thought of protesting. The supernatural had at this point blunted all logic, and it was enough to glance at the surrounding landscape to have no desire to question the dangerousness of Lacroix's findings.

It seemed that the phenomenon had inextricably blended every material in the house with everything organic in its surroundings to create a phantasmagorical garden. The group moved forward as if in a dream; with each step, a new wonder, a new horror appeared. Here, a plant with leaves evoking the heavy double curtains of the first floor, with embroidered veins of gold; there, a flower with lacy bone petals, its heart evoking the crystal stopper of a carafe. A small velvet animal twirling among the vegetation lingered near them long enough to make it obvious that its head was a piece of silver spoon intertwined with veins, and topped with an almost human eye.

Ashcroft shuddered, wondering what might have happened if they had listened to the tune long enough to be affected as well. De Corbiac had suggested a few days prior that a machine, no matter how advanced, could never compose a symphony; what, then, of the fact that a symphony could play creator and compose a whole new life?

The trunk finally sank to the bottom of the lake, and there was a shared sigh of relief.

"What a disaster," Lacroix concluded. "You were right, Glass, this tune does not bring back to life what is dead; it merely destroys old things, and uses them as breeding ground for new things which should never have existed. I was naïve."

Ashcroft feared he would be indelicate if he asked something, but his curiosity got the better of him. "Your research wasn't just to satisfy your interest in ancient forms of musical notation, was it?"

"That doesn't matter much anymore," Lacroix said, adjusting his glasses to give himself a sense of composure. "I've been a fool. The mourning of a loved one makes one lose all common sense, I'm afraid. No parent should have to bury their child. The pain was too great, you understand."

"I hope I'll never have to understand," he replied.

The house was still visible from the shore of the lake, despite the overgrown plants. It was not noticeable from the inside, but even its proportions seemed to have been altered, and several elements of the facade were no longer parallel to each other.

De Corbiac crossed his hands behind his back in annoyance, like a man who just discovered a hair in his soup. The degree of displeasure he displayed was not in the least proportional to the extent of the damage to his possessions. Perhaps he had not yet fully realised the enormity of it. "I'm used to my guests leaving my house in disarray after all my parties, but still, my friends, I must admit that this disaster exceeds my most pessimistic forecasts," he commented.

There was a rustle of leaves not far from them. "This is where we part ways, I'm afraid," said the Other, who had begun to walk away, through the plants.

"Are you leaving us?" inquired De Corbiac. "How sad to see you go. I shall miss our discussions, and your so singular presence."

"You won't miss anything, my friend," replied the Other, smiling. "By tomorrow, all of you will have simply forgotten I ever existed. However, I would be lying if I said I won't miss you."

This seemed to be enough for the dandy, judging by the sincere smile he displayed.

"Lacroix…" continued the nameless person, "the next time you will put flowers on your daughter's final resting place, be sure I'll be thinking of her too, wherever I am, whatever I may be."

Despite his thick glasses, it was fairly obvious that Lacroix's eyes were still a little misty. He only nodded.

"And you, Ashcroft…" began the Other. The silence lasted just long enough for the student to start blushing again. "I was just going to say goodbye, but… if you haven't forgotten me by the time you see him again, please pass on my best regards to Klein, though I think I've already left quite the mark on him."

Ashcroft wished he could have said something, but he had no idea what to say. Absurdly, he felt like apologizing; for what, he wasn't sure. For not being of any use. For not having contributed to the mysterious quest of the Other at all. For not being able to follow him where he had to go, perhaps. He opted for a discreet bow instead.

The nameless person turned on his heels and cut through the plants, heading straight for the forest.

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"The wisest thing to do would probably be to follow the shore of the lake towards the south until we reach a stretch of road at a safe distance from the phenomenon," Lacroix suggested to a not very attentive De Corbiac, who was busy gathering various important or sentimental items in a bag in order to evacuate the premises. The prospect of leaving his home seemed to disturb him way more than all the aberrations the group had experienced so far. He was opening and closing drawers, piling up various papers, going from one trinket to another, mumbling unintelligibly with the look of a pagan that a medieval court had just condemned to undergo an impossible trial to prove his faith in God.

Ashcroft, who had never unpacked his meager luggage since his arrival except to change his clothes, had barely glanced at the nightmare of feathers and fabric that had replaced the tapestry in his guest room before grabbing his own leather satchel and heading back downstairs. He was now busy drawing the Other on a page of his address book, alarmed as he was by the speed with which details of his appearance were disappearing from his memory. The curls, the owl-like nose, the grey clothes, the black hat…

He realised that there was nothing particularly beautiful about the face he was drawing, and that a woman with a similar face would pass as plain, at best. The drama he had recently read came back to him - once unmasked, the gynander written by Péladan, whose charm had worked until then, was suddenly the object of scorn and ridicule from all the other characters.

He began to draw a second, inverted silhouette on the next page, where the face was nothing but stars and smoke.

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If it had been difficult for De Corbiac to pack his belongings, convincing Klein to leave his room and evacuate the premises proved to be a Herculean task. When the door finally opened, the traveler looked at each of them in turn without saying a word, then grabbed his coat and luggage without any ceremony. He was a sight to behold - even if one tried to forget the purple circles under his eyes, no one could ignore the bruise that protruded from under the makeshift bandage Ashcroft had made earlier.

Once the small group was finally outside, yet another delicate task awaited them: convince De Corbiac to follow them on their escape without turning around at every step to contemplate what was left of his beloved house.

The farther away they were getting, the more obvious it seemed that everything the tune had created was doomed to perish very soon - many plants were already withered and brittle, as if nature itself had begun to reject the aberration they represented in its eyes.

Just then, a tune played on a stringed instrument was heard in the distance, toward the forest. Ashcroft felt the hair on his arms bristle as if under the effect of an electric current.

De Corbiac turned to look at his house once more, so disturbed by the loss of his possessions that he seemed oblivious to the danger. "Let us make haste, sir," urged Lacroix, pulling him by the sleeve. However, the fact that the supernatural tune had resumed was not what worried the student most.

Klein was standing still as a bloodhound, turned toward the source of the music, and his entire face was the very image of hatred - an intense, absolute, all-consuming hatred.

After a few moments of horrific tension, he dashed toward the forest. Ashcroft hesitated.

"I'll meet you further down the road," he said at last to his two remaining companions, before hurrying after the traveler without waiting for an answer.

He had no doubt about the Other's ability to defend himself, or even to kill in cold blood if necessary - he just felt, confusedly, that this time, the melody should not be interrupted.

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Keeping up with Klein soon proved impossible; despite his overall health and the previous day's injury, the traveler was a much faster runner and had more stamina than Ashcroft, who soon found himself completely lost. The closer he got to its source, the more the tune seemed to come from all around him - the plants, the insects, the very earth seemed to amplify it like an echo in the mountains, to sing along like a pagan choir whose song itself was the deity they honored.

Everything is the same organism, he thought. All that it has created is a single being, in many bodies, sharing a single consciousness, a single identity.

Illuminated leaves brushed against his shoulders; vegetal tapestries adorned with feathers and supported by intertwined bones were deployed all around him, all sorts of impossible little beings whirred in the air, and everything seemed to breathe with the same breath, like an aberrant lung. Translucent vines, pulsating like veins, snaked and crisscrossed each other on the ground, toward -

Toward a heart, he realised.

He ran again, following the trail of veins of vine, ignoring the leaves whipping his face. There, wasn't this one some kind of vegetal artery where everything converged, exactly like in a real body, dissected in this forest, living its life backwards, waiting to be stitched back together in order to start its existence born in death and decomposition, its identity reflected in a multitude of fragments?

I am nobody. I am a mirror. I can only imitate reality for as long as it takes to accomplish something, so that it would be mistaken for the real thing.

Was this the nebulous goal pursued by the Other? To distill his consciousness into multiple life forms? To find a way to leave a trace after his departure, to know if his existence had a meaning, to discover what impact each of his lives had on the world?

A gunshot followed by a howl of pain, the same as the one from the day before in the hallway, were suddenly heard in the middle of the maelstrom of sound.

Breathless, Ashcroft emerged into a painfully bright clearing; or so he thought, until his eyes adjusted and realised that it was actually unnaturally dark, but filled with an aberrant life from which emanated a sickly inner light. The speed of growth in this place seemed to have increased tenfold, and the metamorphoses followed one another with a demonic cadence - in a few moments, he saw a cherry tree branch blossom, then whiten and become ivory, then spinal cord, before disintegrating into a multitude of fragments that immediately took root and grew into so many feather-like ferns. Everything criss-crossed and coalesced, defying all description, pulsing with muted and confused lights; materials were mixed, forms had lost all meaning, all converging toward a sort of tumulus at the top of which stood a silhouette. He had arrived at the heart of the chaos, and that heart was called Nobody.

Two strange stringed instruments were harnessed to his hands, and with them, he was playing a new variation of the song of life, accompanied by furious movements of his arms, guiding the flow of the music like an otherworldly conductor, his mouth wide open. Ashcroft, still stunned by the sight, realised that for lack of any proper musical instrument, he had to resort to using his own body as a sound box to produce the full effect of the tune.

Something didn't fit in this picture of pure madness, something was out of place - at the foot of a deformed tree with a monstrous structure, Klein lay stunned, pitiful as a rag doll, his limbs forming unnatural angles, one of his hands clearly fractured. A few feet away, a small-caliber firearm had been ripped from his grip.

It was only then that Ashcroft realised that Nobody's grey suit was stained with blood.

He wanted to shout something over the barrage of sound, but to his horror, words other than his own came out of his mouth.

"Once my quest is complete," the voice that was still his shouted, "someone else will always take my place. When he has completed his own quest, someone else will come. Our continued existence is meaningless in the grand scheme of things."

He stepped back, stumbling over yet another absurd plant creation, his eyes fixed on the dark stain that kept spreading larger and larger on Nobody's grey jacket. More sentences wanted to escape Ashcroft's throat against his will. He tightened his hands around his own neck to stop them.

"I am Nobody," his mouth pronounced in spite of everything, "and so will my successor be, and his successor's successor. I want to do something else. To become something else. I want to know if it is possible for an eternal spectator to leave a trace of his past consciousness behind. And if that trace is a monstrosity, so be it."

He fell to his knees, hands over his ears, eyes closed, trying to protect himself from the onslaught of the tune, the vision of the Other dying slowly in that dark aberrant clarity, and that voice that should not have been his.

That voice that was now very hoarse and tired.

"You people said it yourselves. The turning point of a new era is coming. Let kings and empires fall. Let something else appear."

Suddenly, it was all over.

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By the time De Corbiac regained full consciousness, he was standing in the middle of a crossroads, his feet sore from a long walk whose details seemed somewhat muddled. He remembered having to abandon his home hastily after spending several days in the company of several fascinating people. Something very strange and peculiar had happened, too, but most of all, he remembered the actual, physical pain of leaving behind him a lifetime of items and acquisitions.

He suddenly remembered a small man with round glasses, telling him about an oriental god with a peaceful face, who taught men that the evils of this world stemmed from the desire to always acquire more and more material things. Yet he still felt… he longed for… no, it was something different this time.

To hell with the smoke-filled salons, the verbal jousting, the contagious fin de siècle languor. He was tired of all this comedy. He wanted to see with his own eyes all the mysterious countries his ephemeral friends had told him about.

Sore, lost, his future uncertain for the first time since he was born, De Corbiac began to laugh, the liberating laugh of a man who has lost so much that he no longer desires anything but to go on an adventure.

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Lacroix regained consciousness sitting in a muddy field. The wonders and terrors of the past few days were still very much alive in his mind, but distant like his memories of adolescence. More than relief, he felt something he hadn't known in years… yes, that was it, it was well-being. Contentment.

He stood up, ignoring the mud and debris staining his clothes, and watched as the clouds moved lazily across the sky, remembering the times his daughter Eugenie would spend hours giving them shapes and names. Here, a whale; there, a warrior about to attack a lion; this one looked like a cat sleeping on the back of a rhinoceros. For the first time in a long time, these memories evoked nothing painful, but a melancholic joy. He pulled the ocarina out of his pocket to play a tune he had composed for her, years ago.

It had taken him a long time and many perilous detours, but he finally felt ready to move on. He felt ready to live again.

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Klein woke up in a ditch, half-covered with dirt and withered plants, a deep pain in his chest, a taste of vomit in his mouth. He had a feeling of déjà-vu from a disastrous evening several years ago, when he had drunk too much and ended up in a gutter. Judging by how difficult it was to get out of that hole and the state of his hands, he had, in addition to his shredded ear, at least two broken ribs and three broken fingers, and one of his ankles throbbed whenever he tried to lean on it.

The last few days seemed very confusing and strangely distant. Why couldn't he remember them more clearly? Stranger still, why didn't he feel the same exhaustion he usually felt every time he woke up? Had he slept normally in that ditch, his first real restful sleep in years, despite all his injuries?

Staggering back to civilization, he wondered if his perpetual flight forward, from colony to exotic location, from smoky living room to outrageous show, from hypnotic drugs to alcoholic drinks, had ended in that strange lakeside house that had forced him to stay put for a while, just long enough to realize that something was wrong in his life.

He'd never been happy, and no amount of mystery traveler affectations with a wry sense of humor and shocking morals could change that. Maybe it was time to try something new.

Maybe it was time to stop running.

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When he regained his senses, he was walking on a road. Why was he walking on a road? Had he managed to escape from the house? Yes, that's right, wasn't it, he was in a house before, with other people. And he had tried to help someone, but he had failed - the details had almost all faded away, like a dream from which the only things remaining at dawn were colors, but it was someone important to him. He couldn't remember this other person's name. Or his own, for that matter.

He looked at what he was carrying on his shoulder. A leather bag. He set it down on the side of the road and opened it, searching for answers.

A change of clothes. Medical textbooks. Notebooks filled with handwriting that must have been his. Notes, drawings, addresses in a book; strangely, some lines were erased, as if an invisible hand had specifically decided to remove a particular name.

A black hat. American cigarettes.

His curiosity was piqued. There was a mystery there.

But he could always worry about that later. He was expected somewhere, wasn't he?

Nobody put the bag back on his shoulder and began to walk in the direction that his instincts dictated. Wherever that was, he had a vague feeling that at the end of the road, he would discover the answer to a question that nobody, not even him, had ever asked yet.

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