The castle, begrimed by salt and seagulls and empty years, rose from a promontory that overlooked a violent sea. A narrow isthmus connected the castle to land, worn away by waves and no wider than two, maybe three, men walking comfortably abreast. The water churned far below among jagged rocks.
A simple guardhouse of moss-covered stone stood at the head of this natural bridge. In its dark doorway stood the sentinel, an old man named Gregori. He wore baggy pants, ill-fitted chainmail, and a white skullcap that covered his bald head. His hut lay not far off, and here he stood day by day on the remote edge of a wild land.
This day came another man, cloaked and wearing a sword over his shoulder. His deep blue eyes peered out from a sun-darkened face. He came with purpose to the sentinel at the guardhouse and asked, “Is this the Castle Margoron?”
“It is,” answered the other.
“Has it remained abandoned?”
“For forty-eight years no man has entered its gates.”
“And still you stand guard?”
Gregori removed his cap to scratch his head. “You have not come this way by accident. Few do. You know what occurred in this place?”
“I’ve heard what others tell. What say you?”
“Evil. Formless, sightless, heartless evil.” He spoke low, as if another might hear. “Murder. Betrayal. Treachery. Blood stained the floor and walls, men slaughtered dear friends, parents slit their children’s throats. I was not there, or I would not stand here today. The thing that came out of the sea, that crept up from its depths, that the men and servants and livestock imbibed in their feasts and fed upon, it lingers there, brooding, cunning, patient.”
The traveler, pulling back his hood to reveal blond hair, apprised the castle across the narrow bridge. “I have come to defeat this evil. It is time Margoron is restored.”
“You cannot slay this evil with a sword.”
“I am well-prepared for the task.”
Gregori sat upon a rock at the gatehouse door, obviously placed there for that purpose. “An army cannot defeat it. The world cannot. It is not that sort of thing. It is malevolence, envy, murder, lawlessness. A sword will only give it strength.”
“If it is so omnipotent,” the traveler asked, “then why has it not engulfed the world?”
The sentinel, who had been studying his hands, raised his head. “Can you tell me it has not?”
“It doesn’t matter. I have come for this purpose. Will you stop me?”
Gregori reached into a pocket and retrieved two smooth stones. He showed them to the traveler. “What is the difference between these two stones?” he asked.
“May I hold them?”
Gregori gave them to the man, and the traveler handled them inquisitively before returning them. “Except for the ordinary difference between two rocks, I find nothing noticeable.”
The sentinel nodded. “But there is a fundamental distinction. This stone is ordinary, as any you might find on the ground. But this stone, it has killed a man.”
“How can you know that?”
“I have stood here at the edge of Margoron for many years. I know its taste, its aroma. I feel it upon this stone. An evil act changes the object. It is desecrated. If you touch what is unholy, you become unholy. Margoron emanates wickedness. You will not purge it. It will infect you, like a mold, like a rash, like a disease that eats away at your bowels.”
“You have stood here too many years with no one to speak with,” the traveler said kindly. “It has made you imagine things that are not.”
The sentinel bowed his head and said nothing.
“If this evil is as great as you claim, it must be destroyed. I was a priest before I took up the righteous blade. Now I am a paladin, one of the few in the world. As I said, I did not come unprepared.”
“No one does,” Gregori said gloomily.
“You think me so weak?”
“We are of the earth. It is from deeper earth. There is an affinity between us. It is not weakness. It is nature. It will change you, and you will only be more terrible for your supposed strength.”
“Will you stop me?” the Paladin demanded.
Gregori showed open hand, the stones held loosely in one. “I am an old man and have no sword.”
Throwing off his cloak, the Paladin revealed gleaming armor. He strode onto the bridge, sword drawn, and continued forward boldly. Gregori stood to watch him. His hand reached into a pocket. He retrieved a sling. He placed one of the stones in it, whirled it quickly about his head, and released. The stone struck the Paladin in the back of the head. He stumbled, fell over the edge, and plummeted.
The sentinel returned the sling to his pocket and turned to watch for the next traveler, tears in his eyes and upon his cheeks.