Hermias, from a seat outside the entrance to his cave, looked out across the rockbound valley. The slight eminence where he sat brought out sharply against the horizon the splendor of an ancient city. While his thoughts mused over the familiar vision, what looked like a bright ribbon burst from the city walls and began to unwind itself in his direction.
"A good thing I happened to be on the lookout," he congratulated himself. "I shall certainly need all my firmness this time."
There was anxiety but no fear in his eyes as the rapidly moving ribbon resolved itself into a multicolored cavalcade of court nobles and their outriders. The staccato rhythm of galloping horses with the jingle of their trappings came at last to his ears. It emphasized for him the grim purpose which brought this martial column straight to his solitary and remote dwelling.
The cavalcade dashed up, deployed briefly, and formed into two lines fronted by its leader on a magnificent black horse. This man, dark in visage and haughty in mien, dismounted with deliberation and stalked up the rough pathway at the top of which Hermias had risen to await his coming.
For a moment the two stood confronted. The contrast between them was striking. Hermias, clad in a crude belted garment of coarse gray cloth that fell in folds to his bare feet; the other in all the panoply of jewelled accouterments and the opulence of court apparel. Hermias had hair of pale gold and his tranquil mien was deepened by the beauty of gray eyes and the benignant purity of serenely folded lips. The courtier was a smouldering, evilly controlled flame.
Hermias was the first to speak. "Greetings, most illustrious Lord of Zaffiri," he said in his gentle and pleasant voice.
The other's only response was an insolent stare. But Hermias was to be neither forced nor intimidated into discourtesy. He met the arrogance of the courtier with a level and placid gaze.
The aristocrat was compelled at last to speak. "I am here only at the command of our imperial Master." He spat the words like bullets into the young man's face. As the response of Hermias was simply a grave bow, the messenger continued: "Your contumacy in remaining here has been noted with amazement and displeasure by his sovereign Majesty. He had expected you long since to obey his benevolent command to attend the Presence in the imperial city. Your gifts," and the voice was a silken jibe, "should be at the disposal of the royal pleasure."
He paused expectantly, but Hermias said nothing. The dark face sharpened with disdain as he went on: "And our imperial Master bade me command you — this time on pain of death — to abandon your degrading ministrations to those vile hordes of the starving and diseased who flock here from the city. You are herewith once more summoned to place your powers exclusively at the service of our sovereign Liege."
As Hermias for his only answer looked mildly at him, the Lord of Zaffiri broke out: "What! Can it be possible? Yet I admit it does not surprise me in one of your peculiar tastes. You actually prefer your swinish rabble to the service of the magnificent and great?"
Hermias merely bowed in admission of the other's contemptuous charge.
The Lord of Zaffiri then shifted his ground to suavity and began once more. "But our munificent Sovereign is prepared to be generous. Should you obey his command, not only riches and honor, but fame await you. You are to found a great college of healing and research in the imperial city. To this school students of princely degree will flock from every land. . . ."
"Enough!" commandingly interrupted Hermias. Power flashed from his eyes. "Go hence, O Lord of Zaffiri, to our august Sovereign. Say to him faithfully these words: "When he shall have cleansed yonder afflicted city of the unholy forces now holding it in thrall; when he shall give ear and succor to the destitute and suffering which swarm within its gates — then gladly will Hermias dedicate his poor gifts to the imperial service. But without honor, be it understood, and without price." "
Hermias ceased. He met the hot rage in the courtier's eyes with a look of inexorable resolution. For a moment silence throbbed between them.
"So! You are, after all, the fool you look." Wrath had cooled to glinting malice as the Lord of Zaffiri spoke. "Have no anxiety on the score of your message. It shall be most expeditiously and accurately conveyed. But, as such an answer has been anticipated, I have one last word to say." Here he made a pause of deliberate solemnity. "Our illustrious Sovereign," he then continued, "is determined to be merciful. He gives you still a fortnight to reconsider. Nay, to savor fully what your refusal will mean. Your only alternative is death. And not only death, my friend." He broke off carelessly to readjust his sword. "No doubt you have heard of the sinister dungeons beneath the castle?" and looking into the man's eyes, he smiled.
"You have had my answer."
"Nevertheless, I am instructed to give you the fortnight's grace. If you are wise . . . " he finished with a shrug as he turned and swung abruptly away. Hermias resumed his seat as the cavalcade reformed, wheeled, and clattered away across the valley.
It was some hours after the Lord of Zaffiri had departed that twilight fell over the valley. Hermias, in honor of the holy season of the winter solstice, had preserved for three days a rigid fast and long periods of intense meditation. Now, seated again outside his cave for a breathing-spell, he noted how Hesper, the evening star, and the slender young moon drew together in mystical communion. He was thinking with joy that the sacred hours of initiation were drawing near for the candidates who had been successful in their long preparation. His heart brooded over the fearful hazards which confronted them. Presently he returned within the cave where he planned to spend the remainder of the night in meditation. He had dedicated to them the passing hours — to their safe voyaging along the perilous airways and to the secret places of the cosmos.
The cave was engulfed in shadow. Not long had he been rapt away from his surroundings when something new and strange penetrated the atmosphere about him. When he finally unsealed his eyes the whole cave glowed with luminous sapphire. Within this heavenly radiance he beheld a wondrous apparition — three mighty figures pulsating with glory, who regarded him with looks of deep benignity.
A voice like the silver cymbals of the Dhyanis breathed upon the silence. "Hail, child of the Midnight Sun! The inevitable hour, so long unconsciously prepared for by lives of selfless devotion to your fellow men, at last approaches. Arise, then, O accepted of the august Ones. Call upon your spiritual prowess and take the sacred pathway of initiation."
The shock of this electrifying summons brought Hermias to his feet. In the same moment these luminous figures revealed themselves to his spiritual clairvoyance as the three mysterious Magi, the holy Initiators. Awe and reverence exalted his heart. Their celestial presence diffused in him a sense of power and confidence. No hesitation and no doubt assailed him. With the instant obedience to spiritual law which guided all his thoughts and actions, he called upon his long dedicated, impersonal will. His being was sustained by its own unassailable purity. He stood ready.
One of the majestic figures now advanced to the waiting Hermias. The Great One's face expressed a dark serene power. Flowing violet shadow shrouded his form.
"I am Soma, Regent of the Moon. Before the guardian of my dread portal your spirit-soul is commanded to bear swiftly its credentials. Abandon, then, your mortal tabernacle here."
In obedience to his gesture, Hermias stretched himself upon the stone platform where he habitually slept. He composed his limbs peacefully. Peacefully he closed his eyes. Almost at once his physical vesture dropped away beneath him. Then — freedom, instant and glorious! Like a shooting star he sped along the trajectory of his liberated will. At once, far ahead across the shadowy spaces of space he descried the menace of a yawning portal. And there, awaiting the approach of the neophyte, loomed a figure of malignant challenge.
Fourteen days and nights flowed over the valley. Still Hermias lay as one dead upon his couch of stone. Still hovered above him the supernal Magi, bearing watch and ward over the neophyte-body, awaiting for him the judgment of destiny, the outcome for the candidate of victory or doom.
The afternoon of the fourteenth day was drawing on towards night when a disturbance arose outside the cave. There sounded the rude clatter of military footsteps crowding up the short declivity. At the same moment the marble figure on the couch flushed with returning life. As Hermias awakened his whole body began to glow, until when he stood upon his feet he seemed a pillar of aureate splendor. And just then the figure of the Lord of Zaffiri, backed by two mailclad followers, appeared in the entrance to the cave.
"Beware, O child of darkness! Place not thine impious foot upon this hallowed ground." Thus spoke Soma, Regent of the Moon, in solemn warning to the bold intruder upon the transactions of the gods.
The far-off, unearthly cadence of that warning fell upon the courtier's ears like the voice of doom. His gaze widened in amazement and a look of awful horror dawned in his eyes. For one moment he stood paralyzed. But the instinct of that haughty and fearless heart forbade retreat. Mustering his faculties into fierce resistance he took a firm step over the threshold. And instantly, with a groan, the Lord of Zaffiri fell dead at the feet of Hermias.
The gray light of dawn was spreading over the valley. A small caravan of pilgrims, mounted upon swift desert camels, drew up in silence before the cave of Hermias. The initiant, his face still shining with the divine aureole beneath the hooded cloak which shrouded his form, descended to meet them. The leader of the caravan left his kneeling camel and advanced to give Hermias a gesture and glance of wordless greeting. In silence the pair mounted. The caravan turned, passing like a shadow toward the mountains in the east.
Hermias cast one look back over his shoulder towards the sleeping city, now shining with a fabulous beauty in the glory of the rising sun. But there was no grief in the heart of Hermias. For his prophetic vision assured him of the time to come. He would return in that happier day to free its courts and temples and palaces, its noisome byways and hovels from the thraldom of evil, and lead its benighted people into the light.