Lord of Illusions, The

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Szerző: E. Hoffman Price • Év: 1934

They tell a tale of a certain Randolph Carter, and of a silver key wherewith he sought to unlock the hierarchy of gates that bar the march of man from this tri-dimensional fantasy we call reality, and into the super-spatial world we name illusion.

It is said that Randolph Carter upon finding that silver key of archaic workmanship, tarnished blue-black from ages of disuse, so that the cryptic runes with which it was engraved were scarcely legible to whatever eye might have read their prodigious syllables, went at once to his ancestral home at Arkham; and there he sought what in the old days was called the snake den, a deep grotto in an ominously shaded spot where few natives of the region cared to go, much less linger. Carter since that day has not been seen; and it has been hinted that he achieved his old dream of marching into the Land of Illusion.

There the chronicle ends, leaving a tale whose exquisite beauty is matched only by its incompleteness. The learned chronicler, who has in all probability peered further into the realms of mystery and the ultra-cosmic abysses than any of his contemporaries, released only what he knew, and withheld all but a hint of that which he suspected. Four years, however, have passed; and sundry startling developments have resulted in a well founded conviction that Randolph Carter has not been irretrievably lost in the gulfs which, after sounding in fancy, he finally plumbed in person. The last of these bits of evidence warrants a statement, which will tend to show that the chronicler’s intuition was amazingly correct, and lacking only in detail.

Randolph Carter, it must be remembered, left in his car, on the day of his disappearance, a carved oaken chest. He took with him that antique silver key which was to unlock the successive doors that barred his free march down the mighty corridors of space and time, to the very Border which no man has crossed since Shadded with his terrific genius built and concealed in the sands of Arabia Petraea the prodigious domes and uncounted minarets of thousand-pillared Irem. Half starved darwishes, and thirst-crazed nomads have returned to tell of glimpses of its monumental portal, and of the Hand that is sculptured above the keystone of the arch; but no man has passed, and returned to say that his footprints on the garnet-strewn sands within bear witness to his visit. Carter, therefore, took with him that key for which the sculptured hand is said vainly to grasp; but Carter through ignorance or the absentmindedness of exultation left behind him the palimpsest which was found in that disquietingly carved oaken chest, several days after his disappearance had aroused comment and vain search.

That yellow parchment, whose reed-scribed characters baffled scholars familiar with lost languages, fell into the hands of the chronicler who first sought to account for Carter’s disappearance; but in the light of subsequent events, particularly a chance meeting in New Orleans in the summer of 1932, it seems that Randolph Carter would have done well to have taken scroll as well as key. Such, at least, was the contention of an old man who, motionless and silent, save for an occasional muttering, and an occasional replenishment of the olibanum whose fumes rose from the oddly wrought iron tripods that flanked the wine-red Bokhara rug on which he sat. But more, in due course, of that scroll, and that old man who muttered.

Randolph Carter, with the silver key in his pocket, picked his way along a familiar, though almost obliterated path, long unused. That afternoon, Carter observed that the cleft in the granite hillside seemed strangely like the crudely shaped bastions on each side of the gates of a certain walled city. But this change, instead of disturbing Carter, served but to assure him that the day was auspicious and the hour also. And, unhappily, his exaltation at possessing the Key conspired with his scholarly forgetfulness to make him quite oblivious of any possible need for the scroll. Although, in view of the fate that overtook one who with Carter, years previous, had ventured to read a similar scroll, it may be that Carter deemed it more prudent not to have that portentous screed with him in the strange domain he proposed invading, and thus intentionally abandoned it.

As Carter strode into the dimness and took from his pocket the silver key, and a flashlight with which to illuminate that grotto which he knew was beyond the narrow fissure at the back of the anteroom, for such he considered the cave in which he stood, he was for a moment amazed to find that there was ample illumination. Whereupon he abandoned his flashlight, and, key in hand, as he now realized should be his procedure, he advanced into what he expected would be the high-ceiled grotto that he had once, as a boy, explored.

His expectation, however, was exceeded. And for several bemused moments, he was unaware of the old man who had civilly greeted him as he stepped into the vault. For, strangely enough, it was into a vast chamber rather than into a grotto that Carter had entered. A hemispherical ceiling curved over him with a mighty sweep that dwarfed all comparison that he made as he stood seeking to reconcile the immensity of the dome with the outer bulk of the hill which contained it. He wondered how a part could exceed the whole; and then he realized that this prodigious vault might not, and need not, be a part of the hill in whose center it presumably curved.

The cyclopean pillars which supported the vault caused him still to ignore the civil old man who had approached Carter. There was a rugged enormity that disturbed Carter, and left him with the impression that neither nature nor the chisel of any mason had worked the stone into its solemn and majestic simplicity. He sought for a moment to name to himself the curve of the dome, which he now perceived was not truly hemispherical as he had at first thought, but of a curvature that transcended not only spheres, but the ellipsoids of revolution, and the paraboloids with which he was familiar.

Then, with a start, Carter realized that he had not returned the old man’s civil greeting, and, somewhat disconcerted, he wished to make amends for his lack of courtesy. But he was at a loss to think of a suitable remark or salutation. Since he had never seen him, or anyone remotely resembling that erect figure with its proudly poised head and solemn, sphinx-like features, he was obviously not to make any banal remarks equivalent to “Just fancy meeting you here.” For it seemed, after an instant’s reflection, that it was of all things in the world the most appropriate that he should meet this person whose majestic bearing was relieved by a twinkle in a pair of eyes more ancient-seeming than the very vault itself. Moreover, Carter doubted that he knew, or could even name a language in which to address him. And finally, Carter, as he stared, abashed, and forgetful of the Key, doubted that this could be a man. He felt that he was before a Presence.

“We have been awaiting you,” said the bearded sage, in a language that Carter understood. “Welcome, even though delayed. You have the key, and the doors await your trial...

He paused for an instant, then continued, tactfully sensing that Carter could have no appropriate reply, “If you have the courage.”

His last words were devoid of menace, yet Carter trembled at the implication of the speech. The soul of Randolph Carter, and the inheritance of all those visionary Carters before him felt rather than understood the meaning; and trembled at the risk of passing the threshold whereof the Presence spoke.

“I am ’Umr at-Tawil, your guide,” said the old man. “Or at least, so you may call me, for I have many names.”

Then he smiled as he noted Carter’s now perceptible consternation at the mention of that name which he had read in the archaic Kufic script of the forbidden Necronomicon, whose unholy pages he had once, and once only, dared scan.

This Presence, then, was ’Umr at-Tawil, that Terrible Ancient One of whom the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred wrote vaguely, and said disturbingly, “And while there are those who have had the temerity to. seek glimpses of beyond the Veil, and to accept HIM as a guide, they would be more prudent to avoid commerce with HIM; for it is written in the Book of Thoth how terrific is the price of but one glimpse; and none who pass may return, for they will be firmly bound by those who lurk in the vastnesses that transcend our world. The terrors of the night, and the evils of creation, and those who stand watch at the secret exit that it is known each grave has, and thrive on that which grows out of the tenants thereof; these are lesser powers than he who guards the Gateway, and offers to guide the unwary into the realm beyond this world and all its unnamed and unnameable Devourers. For HE is ’UMR AT-TAWIL, which signifieth, THE MOST ANCIENT ONE, which the scribe hath rendered as THE PROLONGED OF LIFE.”

“I am indeed that Most Ancient One,” said ’Umr at-Tawil, “and if you fear, Randolph Carter, you may now leave, safe and harmless. But, if you elect to advance ”

The pause was ominous, but the smile of the Ancient One was benign. Carter wondered for a moment whether the mad Arab’s terrific, blasphemous hints, and excerpts from the lost Book of Thoth, might not have arisen out of envy, and frustration of a desire to essay that which Carter was about to accomplish.

“I will advance,” declared Carter. “And I accept you as my guide, ’Umr at-Tawil!”

Carter’s voice sounded strangely resonant in his own ears as he spoke. Then he realized that he had replied in that sonorous language which all save three obscure scholars deem dead: Guezz, which is to Amharic as Latin is to English.

’Umr at-Tawil made a gesture of acceptance. And then he made with his left hand another sign; but now Carter was beyond being perturbed, despite his having recognized that curious motion, and the unusual position of the fingers. Randolph Carter knew now that he was approaching the gateway, and that despite the cost, he could sail his galleys “up the river Oukranos past the gilded spires of Thran, and march with his elephant caravans through perfumed jungles in Kled, where forgotten palaces with veined ivory columns sleep lovely and unbroken under the moon.” Therefore he elected to forget the peril.

But before he advanced to follow his guide, he glanced back, and saw that the fissure through which he had entered was now closed, and that the prodigious vault was suffused with a greenish haze traversed by rays and bands of sulfur blue. And as he followed the Most Ancient, he perceived that the vault was not untenanted as he had at first thought. In the haze that hung low along the curved wall, he noted an assemblage of bearded men who sat on hexagonal prisms of obsidian. And when he approached closely enough to see the details of the carvings of the hexagonal thrones, he began to realize consciously what he had for some moments felt: that he was in the presence of those who were not entirely men. Carter wondered how they had assumed the shapes of men. But Carter was beyond terror now. A desperate resolve inflamed him.

“Had I not aspired to this quest,” he replied, as his feet sank into the metallically glistening blue sand grains of the vault floor, “my body would have lived years after my soul perished. Therefore it is good to face this venture, for to what purpose does a man save his soul if it rot miserably in the chains riveted fast by priests and doctors? A soul were better lost in this high venture, if only that I may say in the end that none was ever before lost in this wise.”

He saw that those who sat had long beards, cut square, and curled in a fashion not entirely unfamiliar; and the tall gray mitres that they wore were strangely suggestive of the figures that a forgotten sculptor had chiseled on the everlasting cliffs of that high mountain in Tartary. He remembered whom they served, and the price of their service; yet Carter was still content, for at one mighty venture he was to learn all. And damnation is but a word bandied about by those whose blindness leads them to condemn him who sees clearly even with one eye.

Each had in his hand a scepter whose carven head represented an archaic mystery, yet even then, Carter was glad that he had advanced, though he knew beyond all doubt who they were, and whence they came.

Carter wondered at the colossal conceit of those who babble of the malignant Ancient Ones; as if THEY could pause from their everlasting dreams to wreak a wrath upon mankind. It seemed, as he gazed upon their faces, that a dinosaur would as well pursue in frantic vengeance an angle worm.

They were greeting him with a gesture of those oddly carven scepters. Then they raised their voices, speaking in unison.

“We salute you, Most Ancient One, and you, Randolph Carter, for your temerity has made you one of us.”

Whereupon Carter perceived that a prismatic throne had been

reserved for him, and the Most Ancient was with a gesture indicating that he be seated. The glistening metallically blue sands crunched under his feet as he strode to his throne. And then he saw the Most Ancient seating himself upon a similar, but loftier eminence, in the center of the crescent of Ancient Ones.

’Umr at-Tawil then leaned forward and plucked from the sand at the foot of his throne a chain of iridescent metal whose last link was fastened to a globe encircled by a band of silver. He extended his arm, and held the device for the Companions to regard. Then he began chanting in that obscure, sonorous tongue in which he had addressed Carter.

The chant was addressed to the Ancient Ones on the obsidian thrones, rather than to Carter. He saw their glittering eyes glow with a terrific, unearthly-splendid phosphorescence as they contemplated the globe that burned and flamed and throbbed at the end of the chain that the master grasped. They were swaying to the cadence of the chant; and one by one, they lifted their voices until there was a full throated harmony that surged and thundered through the vault like the roll of drums and the blare of trumpets. Halos of greenish flame played about their heads as they nodded to-the beat of the Master’s chant, and beams of light played across their features.

And then, one by one, they resumed their silence, until finally only the Master’s voice was heard. Carter perceived that the Ancient Ones were asleep; and he wondered what they were dreaming in that slumber from which they had been awakened to free him. Then for the first time, Carter began to understand the sense as well as the words that the Master was pronouncing to his Companions.

He knew that the Most Ancient had chanted them into that deep sleep from whose profundity they were contemplating unplumbed vastnesses. He knew how they were to accomplish that which his presence had demanded of them. The Most Ancient was chanting to their ears an image of that which he wished them to envision; and Carter knew that as each of the Ancient Ones pictured the thought that ’Umr at-Tawil was prescribing, there would be a manifestation visible to his eyes. When they had achieved a oneness, the impact of their concentration would materialize that which he required.

Carter had seen, in Hindustan, how a thought concentration can become an entity with tangible presence and material existence, taking substance from the projected will of a circle of adepts. And these Ancient Ones were by their will vortex projecting him.

The Silver Key was in his hand. But the blank wall he faced was still adamantine firmness. There was not a vestige of a keyhole. There was scarcely a trace of the line which marked the meeting of the door with its jamb.

The Most Ancient had ceased chanting. For the first time Carter realized how terrific silence may be. The earlier quiet of the grotto had been enlivened by the earth pulse, that low pitched vibration which, though inaudible, nevertheless prevents a sense of utter silence. But now Carter’s own breathing was no longer perceptible. The silence of the abyss hovered like a presence in the vault. The eyes of the Most Ancient were now fixed upon the globe he held, and about his head there likewise glowed a nimbus of fire, greenish, shot with flashes of sulfur blue.

A dizziness overcame Carter, a whirling of all his senses, and an utter lack of orientation such as he had never known in the most impenetrable blacknesses heaped upon blackness. He could see the Most Ancient Ones on each side of his throne of obsidian, yet there was a terrifying isolation. Then he felt himself floating through immeasurable depths. Waves of perfumed warmth lapped against his face as though he swam in a torrid rose-tinctured sea. It seemed that it was a sea of drugged wines whose waves broke foaming against shores of brazen fire. A great fear clutched Carter as he saw that vast expanse of surging sea lapping against its far off coast.

“The man of truth is beyond Good and Evil,” intoned a great voice that filled the vault. “The man of Truth has learned that Illusion is the only reality, and that substance is an imposter.”

The outline of the gate was now very clearly visible. Carter at last realized that the Key was a symbol rather than that wherewith to open any lock; for that rose-drunken sea that lapped his cheeks was the adamantine mass of the granite wall yielding before the thought vortex the Ancient Ones had directed against it.

His advance through that prodigious bulk of eternal granite was

a falling through the immeasurable abysses between the stars. From a great distance, he heard the triumphant, godlike surges of deadly sweetness. Then, as that tremendous fanfare died out, he heard the rustling of wings, and strange chirpings and murmurings. He glanced over his shoulder, he saw that which clamored at the gate; and he was glad that its granite had no keyhole, and that he alone held the Key.

Carter’s bewildered mind, as it recovered from the momentary horror of those that clamored in vain at the door they could not open, received a shock more stunning than that which his backward glance had given him. He realized of a sudden that he was at one time many persons.

The body and mind of Randolph Carter, of Arkham, still sat on that hexagonal block of obsidian with its terrific carvings that a man’s mind would have named grotesquely obscene. And this which he considered his ego, this entity at whose outrunning those who clamored at the gate had so pleased him, this was still not his ego. Even as that which sat enthroned among the Ancient Ones was not.

Randolph Carter now felt a supreme horror such as had not been hinted even at the height of that dreadful evening when two had ventured into a tomb, and but one had emerged. No death, no doom, no anguish can arouse the surpassing despair aroused by a loss of identity. Merging with nothingness is peaceful oblivion; but to exist, to be aware of existence and yet to know that one no longer retains an identity that will serve as a distinction from every other entity; to know that one no longer has a self

He knew that there had been a Randolph Carter of Arkham; but in his terrific confusion, he knew not if he had been that one, or some other Carter. In his terror, he had the wild, outrageous sense of being at one time a multiplicity of Carters. His self had been annihilated, and yet he—if indeed there could, in view of that utter nullity of individual existence, be anything such as he—was aware of being, in some inconceivable way, a legion of selves. It was as though his body had suddenly been transformed into one of those many-limbed and many-headed effigies sculptured in Indian temples, and he contemplated the aggregation in a bewildered attempt to discern which was the original, and which the additions; save that this which assailed

the individuality of his self was a terror towering stupendously over all other outrages. Then Carter’s devastating terror itself became trifling before that which confronted and surrounded the personality- integration whereof Randolph Carter of Arkham had become an infinitesimal. It was at once a BEING, a force, an unlimited completeness of space, and a personal presence; nor was there any incongruity in that blending of heretofore unrelated concepts. In the face of that awful wonder, the quasi-Carter forgot the horror of destroyed individuality. The space-presence was addressing the element of that summation of Carters. It emanated prodigious waves that smote and burned and thundered an energy concentration that blasted Carter with unendurable violence. It was as though suns and worlds and universes had converged upon one point whose very position in space they had conspired to annihilate with an impact of resistless fury.

Carter understood, as, finally, it singled him out from the summation of Carters.

“Randolph Carter,” IT said, “my manifestations, the Ancient Ones, have sent you as one who would reign on the opal throne of Ilek-Vad, whose fabulous towers and innumerable domes rise mightily toward a single red, lurid star that glows in that alien firmament whose vault shelters the realm of Illusion.

“But it shall be otherwise. The ultimate mystery is about to be unveiled, rather than any throne which is but the transfiguration of an earthly fancy, and the refuge of one who is not pleased by that which he deems is reality. Yet before you gaze full at that last and first of secrets, you may, as before, exercise a free choice, and return to the other side of the Border without having the final veil stripped from your eyes.”

Then the resistless surges of super-cosmic energy subsided. There was a negation of vibration that left Carter in an awful stillness and loneliness. He was in an illimitable vastness and a void. And after a moment, Carter addressed the void:

“I accept, and I will not retreat.”

Whereupon the Space Presence returned and Carter understood what it said.

“You, Randolph Carter, have gone through the nethermost gulfs

of horror, and you have plumbed the uttermost abyss of space. We will therefore enlighten you.

“You have come from a world wherein each entity has a self, an individuality, a personality; and where all is limited by three directions, up-down, forward-backward, right-left. There are those among your scholars who have vaguely hinted that there may be other directions than those which your senses acknowledge. But none has pierced the veils and seen what you have viewed.

“In your three-dimensional cosmos of length, breadth, and thickness you have set up gods with three-dimensional fury, and hatred, and vengeance and vanity and craving for adulation.

“Your deities have demeaned themselves by craving sacrifices, and compelling the belief of that which is repugnant to the bit of you which has retained its contact with the realm wherein you alone have penetrated. The chief worship in your three-directioned world is that of a trinity whose anthropophagous cravings are satiated by your symbolic eating of the body of a god who was also a man.

“You are a race of idolaters who have made god after your own image.

“You have denied your heritage.”

For a moment Carter was amazed at the implications of that which he had heard; and then he perceived that which theretofore in his terror and awe he had not noted: that he was in a space of dimensions beyond those conceivable to the eye and sense of man. He saw now in the brooding shadows of that which had been first a vortex of power, and then an illimitable void, a sweep of creation that dizzied his senses. From his vantage point, he looked upon prodigious forms whose dimensions transcended the three that limited that far off form which he knew still sat motionlessly squatting on a hexagonal prism of basalt. Yet, though far off, it also had its counterpart in this super-space whose dismaying directions baffled him. Then the voice rose, and aided his groping for that enlightenment which was filtering into his being, and reconciling him to the multitudinous personality of which he was an infinitesimal element.

“In your world you have a space form which is a square. And your geometers have explained that this form is but the result of cutting a cube with a plane. And that which you call a circle is but the result of passing a plane through a sphere. So that every flat, length- breadth figure which you know is but the projection of a three dimensional form. And there you have stopped.

“Yet even as a circle is a section of a sphere, so likewise is a sphere a section of a higher form whereof your senses can have no vision. And thus your world with its three dimensional men and gods is but the cross section of this super-space which you have entered. A projection, and a shadow, no more, of Reality. And this shadow you have, all save yourself, considered reality, and the substance you have named illusion.

“Perversely enough, in your world you have claimed that Time is fleeting. You consider time as possessed of motion, and as the cause of change. But that is wrong; time is motionless, and literally without beginning or end. More truly, time is an illusion, and is non-existent, in the sense that there is a so-called flight of time which produces the fantasy and the delusions you name future and past and present.

“There is neither future nor past nor present!”

Those last words were spoken with a solemnity that left Carter without the ability to doubt. He believed, yet he could not, even in the multitude of his personalities, conceive that which had been set before him.

“Then if not Time, since there be no Time, what is it that causes change?” he finally said, baffled at the paradox.

“There is no change. All that was and all that is to be, have a simultaneous existence. Change is an illusion that has begotten yet another illusion.

“There would be no time in your world were it not for that which you call change.”

As the voice paused, Carter pondered, and saw that he could accept that last statement intellectually, as well as merely at the solemn affirmation of the Space Presence. Obviously, if nothing ever changed, then there would be no earthly sense of time. Time was marked in its flight by the course of stars, by the motion of the hands of a clock; and if neither these nor any other thing changed then surely there would be no time.

“But they do change!” he protested. “And therefore there must be time. My hair is gray, and my skin is wrinkled—I have changed. And my soul is weary with the recollection of that which was once, but no longer is. I am eaten with the grief that came of friendships which died before the body of him who was a friend, and I exult, betimes, at the memory of those whose spiritual presence has survived the change in their bodies. There is change, and it has marked me, and every man! Is all that, then, illusion?” demanded Carter, as a mighty despair corroded him.

“There is no change,” pronounced the voice with a solemn majesty that made Carter believe, though he could not understand. “Look, you, Carter, and see that your universe is but the projection of a higher-dimensioned cosmos.

“And consider, in your own limited terms, the form you call a cone. Your geometers cut it with a plane. The section is a circle. They cut it with a plane that passes at a different angle, and the section is an ellipse. And again, it is a parabola whose branches sweep out through the uttermost limits of your space. And yet, it is the same cone, and there has been no change. You have but cut it at a different angle. And all, if you will, simultaneously. You have at the end no more, no less than at the beginning; and thus the ellipses, and parabolae, and hyperbolae, are illusions you call change, forgetting that their parent form is an unalterable spatial figure.

“Your world is but a section of super-space,” repeated the Space Presence, as the enlightenment sank into Carter. “And time and change are but the illusions caused in that phantom existence of yours by the shifting angle of the plane which cuts the world of reality.”

“Then there is change!” cried Carter triumphantly, as he saw that he had at last forced the Space Presence into a contradiction. “The angle of cutting changes!”

Then before the more than godlike, indulgent smile of the Presence, Carter felt very small and childish, and his triumph even more inane, as he heard the answer.

“If you must still in human fashion split hairs, Randolph Carter,” said the voice, “we will grant your point, and not remind you that that angle and that plane are of this world rather than yours. And it is strange,” continued the voice, “that a member of a race credulous enough to believe that a God ordered the slaughter of his other self, as an object lesson in gentleness, could quibble about an angle of section!”

The monstrous multi-dimensional space quivered with a laughter such as Carter had in his earthly imaginings attributed to the mirth of young gods as they romped childishly about, discarding worlds whereof they had tired. Yet there was a brooding note of solemnity behind that more than divine mirth which made the jest older than time itself, and mordant with grimness tinged with... regret, Carter finally realized. Regret at his monumental stupidity.

Then Carter began to perceive, dimly and terrifyingly, the background of the riddle of that loss of individuality which had at first shaken him with horror. His intuition integrated the truth fragments which the Space Presence had poured upon him. And yet he could not quite see the summation.

“There was once an I,” he finally said, “and even that has been destroyed by this negation of time and change. And if there be neither past nor future, then what of all those Carters before me, all of whom I sense that I am, and yet am not....”

As he proposed the question, his voice trailed to a thin nothingness; for while he sensed, he could not yet express that which staggered and bewildered him. He dared not face the certainty, as it now seemed to him, that there had never been a Carter who fought before the walls of Ascalon, a Carter who had dabbled in black magic in the days of Queen Elizabeth, a Carter who had strangely vanished near the snake den, and one whose forbidden studies had brought him perilously close to the scaffold. These had been his heritage and the bulwark of his ego; and even they had been destroyed by this merciless Presence who had spared neither God, nor Time, nor Change.

“All those Carters,” replied the voice to his question, “are one Carter in this ultra-spatian domain; and this multivariated Carter is eternal as we are. And those you deemed the ancestors whose heritage of soul you have are but cross sections in three directional space of that one of our Companions who is all Carters in one. And you—you are but a projection. A different plane of section, so to speak, is responsible for your manifestation, than was the cause of that ancestor who vanished so strangely.

“And he vanished when his ruling plane turned edgewise simultaneously to the three directions of your senses.

“Listen again, Randolph Carter of Arkham: you who have been so terrifyingly bewildered at the destruction of your ego, you are but one of the sections, even as any one ellipse is but one of an infinity of sections of a cone.”

Carter pondered in the mighty silence that followed that statement; and bit by bit, its implications became explicit. And he knew that if he had understood aright, he would in his very body be able to do that which theretofore he had done but in dreams.

He sought to test his understanding by putting it into words.

“Then if my section-plane be shifted in its angle, can I become any of those Carters who have ever existed? That Carter, for instance, who was imprisoned eleven years in the fortress of Alamut, on the Caspian Sea, in the hands of that one who falsely claimed to be the Keeper of the Keys? That Geoffrey Carter, who at last escaped from his cell, and with his bare hands strangled that false master, and took from him the silver key which even now I hold in my hands?”

“That, or any other Carter,” pronounced the Presence. “They are all—but that you know, now. And if that is your choice, you shall have it, here and now....”

Then came a whirring, and drumming, that swelled to a terrific thundering. Once again Carter felt himself the focal point of an intense concentration of energy that smote and hammered and seared unbearably, until he could not say whether it was unbelievably intense heat or the all-congealing cold of the abyss. Bands and rays of color utterly alien to any spectrum of this world played and wove and interlaced before him; and he was conscious of an awful velocity of motion....

He caught one fleeting glimpse of one who sat alone on a hexagonal throne of basalt.

Then he realized that he was sitting among crumbled ruins of a fortress that had once crowned this mountain that commanded the southernmost end of the sombre Caspian Sea.

Geoffrey Carter, strangely, retained some few vestigial memories of that Randolph Carter who would appear some 550 years later. And it was not utterly outrageous to him, this thought of remembering someone who would not exist until five centuries after the Lord Timur had torn the castle of Alamut to pieces, stone by stone, and put to the sword each of its garrison of outlaws.

Carter smiled thinly at human fallibility. He knew now why that castle of Alamut was in ruins. He realized, too late, the error that Randolph Carter had made—or, would make?—in having demanded a shift of the Carter-plane without a corresponding shift of the earth- plane, so that Geoffrey-Randolph Carter might seek this time to do what he had once failed of doing: riding in the train of that brooding, sombre Timur who had terribly destroyed Alamut, and liberated him.

Geoffrey Carter remembered enough of Randolph Carter to make his anomalous position not entirely unbearable. He had all the memories that Randolph Carter was to have, five centuries hence; and what was most outlandish of the paradox was that he, Geoffrey Carter, was alive, in a world five hundred years older than it should be. He sat down on a massive block of masonry, and pondered. At last he rose, and set out on foot, and empty-handed.

“This,” said one of those assembled in a certain house in New Orleans, “is plausible to a degree, despite the terrifically incomprehensible be-scramblement of time and space and personality, and the blasphemous reduction of God to a mathematical formula, and time to a fanciful expression, and change to a delusion, and all reality to the nothingness of a geometrical plane utterly lacking in substance. But it still does not settle the matter of Randolph Carter’s estate, which his heirs are clamoring to divide.”

The old man who sat cross-legged on the Bokhara rug muttered, and poked absently at the almost dead bed of charcoal that had glowed in the bowl of the wrought-iron tripods.

And then he spoke: “Randolph Carter succeeded in groping into the riddle of time and space, to a degree, yet his success would have been greater had he taken with him not only the silver key, but also the parchment. For had he but pronounced its phrases, the earth- plane would have shifted with the Carter-plane, and he would have achieved the unattained desire of the Geoffrey Carter that he became, instead of returning to the world-section 550 years after the time he wished.”

Then said another: “It is all plausible, though fantastic. Yet unless Randolph Carter returns from his hexagonal throne, his estate must be partitioned among his heirs.”

The old man who sat cross-legged glanced up; his eyes glittered, and he smiled strangely.

“I could very readily settle the dispute,” he said, “but no one would believe me.” He paused, stroked his chin for a moment, and then resumed, “While I am Randolph Carter, come back from the ruins of Alamut, I am also so much Geoffrey Carter that I would be mistaken for an imposter. And thus while my due is the estate of two Carters, my portion unhappily is neither.”

We stared, regarding him intently; and then the learned chronicler, who stared the longest, said half aloud, half to himself, “And I thought that a new king reigned, in Ulthar, beyond the River Skai, on the opal throne of Ilek-Vad.”

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Legolvasottabb

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