in a dark and stormy land, far from the brightly lit cities and towns of genteel civilization,
a lone traveler rode furiously across a battered and windswept landscape, heedless of the uprooted trees, fallen boulders and other obstacles that the maddened lightning periodically illuminated in his path.
animals, too, wolves, bears and panthers growled and hissed in his path. still he rode on.
behind him, audible over the din of the howling wind, the howling of dogs, the pounding of an army of hooves, the clanging of armor and the occasional explosion of firearms could be heard.
suddenly his horse reared up at an enormous mossy rock illuminated in the path by an bright bolt of lightning. a huge black panther crouched on top of the boulder. rain streamed over its sinewy body and dripped from its red roaring jaws.
how it rained!
with a desperate effort, the blinded rider forced his terrified steed to its four feet and dismounted. red eyes appeared in the boiling mist around them. suddenly the panther sprung from the rock, landing a scant six feet from the traveler!
calmly, the rider drew a saber from beneath his rain-drenched cloak. the panther reared back, growling deeply. the other animals drew back also, except for a shaggy bear, with a raven on its shoulder, a hideous black-and-white wolf, and a thin elongated jaguar.
the rider advanced toward the panther. the panther retreated two steps, then sprang!! the horseman seemed to slip forward in the mud, then brought the saber down on the leaping beast's skull, splitting it in two. red blood, white brains, and a loathsome green gas boiled out, briefly illuminating the scene, then was quickly effaced by the increasingly furious wind and rain.
the other beasts who had witnessed the affair began a horrible cacaphony and began to surround the human and his steed, but with an imperious gesture he waved them away. they slunk back into the darkness. only the bear with its raven companion paused to mark the rider's countenance (hidden, indeed, by his thick cloak) before joining its fellows in the darkness.
it was over in minutes. now the clangor of the pursuing army, which had been partially obscured by the raging storm, manifested itself anew. leaping back on the horse, as the lightning flashed, flashed and flashed again, the rider had just time to see in the distance the outline of a castle, curiously undefended and alone on the horizon. then the lightning disappeared as quickly as it had come, leaving the cosmos in total darkness, as before. now, the heavens opened in earnest.
after what seemed an eternity the lone traveler reached the castle. it was completely unlit, and he would never have seen it had it not been for the lightning.
the pursuing army had been left behind in the downpour which had still not ceased.
the travelers clothes were hopelessly soaked through. he had ridden his horse to death - when he dismounted the heroic beast collapsed and expired in the mud.
the traveler looked around as best he could. he could not help but notice the most singular aspect of the castle - that although the landscape around abounded in hills, crags and rocky terrain more suitable for a defensive position, it had been built in the most exposed spot imaginable, as if taunting any would be attackers.
there was no moat or any other outer outer fortifications so he strode right up to the door.
although no light shone from within, the building, as best he could tell, did not look neglected. the windows (all barred) were not broken, and no rubbish was visible around the walls.
"it is inhabited - i feel it," he spoke aloud. he proceeded to pound on the front door. after about ten minutes of the hardest blows he could muster, a faint light finally appeared under the door. it opened, and the waterlogged traveler found himself facing the oldest servant he had ever seen - the fellow must be one hundred and twenty years old, he muttered to himself.
"actually, sir, i am four hundred and eighty-seven, but i still have excellent hearing." the ancient lifted his head from the base of his curved spine and fixed the traveler with the eye of a condor or cobra. "are you making a claim on the master's hospitality?"
"it seems the appropriate course of action under the circumstances."
"indeed. will your horse require attention? do you have more than one horse?"
"my horse has expired and will require disposal. and he was, i am afraid, the only one."
"no servants accompany you?"
"very well then." the old man stood aside and the traveler entered. he was led dpwn a long low ceilinged hall unadorned by pictures, statues, banners or armaments. a door at the end was opened, revealing a spacious though low ceilinged drawing room. it was immediately apparent that the lack of light on the outside was not due to the lack of light within, but to the tightness of the shuttered windows. a veritable bonfire blazed in the hearth, revealing the figure seated next to it in the most ravishing light possible. but despite the fire and the tight window, a chill shook the travelers frame as he entered.
"from this wet clothing," he muttered to himself.
the figure beside the fire did not speak. instead the deep voice of one to whom command was first and second nature emerged from the shadows of the room.
"gruz, don't bring the fellow in here dripping wet, put some dry clothes on him."
"yes, sir. i thought you might want to see him first."
"i will see him when he's dry."
the traveler gave a short bow in the direction of the voice. "i apologize, sir -"
a cold breeze brushed the travelers cheek, as if from the wave of the voice's hand. "your apologies can wait, sir," the voice replied in a polite enough tone. "we have all night."
"all night and more," the servant added. "this way, sir."