The howling winds carried whispers through the pines. A white curtain made of snow danced around a wanderer, whose teeth bit tears of his own soul. Slow and heavy, he kept up the pace, hidden around pelts that could not protect entirely from the cold. Now and then invisible claws found breaches, made him squeeze himself without feeling the touch. Fear of purple spots locked his eyes forward, watching shadows all around, higher than that breezing hell.
Desolated, hungry and lost, the wanderer could not give up.
There was a temple in the forest’s heart, and the people of Gram chose him to become a World Defender. The blessings of the High could sooth any wounds: the necrosis, given his success, were supposed to be only the first trial. He’d face worse things around the World Pillar, things that a man would never dare to imagine.
As a human, seeing the demons in dreams would crush his will. As a World Defender, they’d be only another wave to shove back into the Abyss of Hatred. To the eternal, time ceases to exist, as it ceased during that walk. That shapeshifiting feel was a thin cobweb of sanity, covering the walls of a safe place into the wanderer’s mind. The lack of footprints to guide a way back were siege weapons that could break him into desperation, if he ever searched for them.
To the Chosen Ones, there was no home to return.
As for the trail, it was lost within reality. The wanderer’s guides were the browns and blacks he stumbled and cornered through: giant tree trunks, with coniferous leaves trembling and sliding snow packs, the very scorn of that very ancient place. Besides the trees and the wanderer himself, no signs of life. No wolf pack to break bones and flesh, no owl to haunt the stars, only a choir of ghost voices through the Wind. Inside the Forest of Ethereal Eyes, the efforts of a man were nothing but another whisper in the breeze. The place, as eternal as the World Defenders, guarded the Temple of Gram from mankind corruption. Only the Chosen, with the righteousness of a bright fire and an infinite desire to protect beloved ones, could pass the green barrier.
When the wanderer retained the ability to think, he felt guilt and anger, because the place looked like an ordinary woodland through the first steps. The closure said by the ancestors became a joke when he found a glade. He warmed himself with a fire, watched the pale sun going down and up, heard the noisy owls that would disappear in a few days. There was life, plenty of it: leftovers marking bear caves, frozen rivers, wolves that he avoided through the snowstorm. The “Ethereal Eyes”, as he believed, weren’t unlike the eyes around his family’s lumber mill.
It was nature, nothing but nature.
When the wanderer lived in a house, he saw the so called legend as a way to scare naughty children and entertain travelers interested in tales about ghosts and demons. But the wanderer was a good man: he took care of the elders, provided good hunts, worked on community problems without using violence as a resort. When the Temple’s smoke raised above the woods, calling for a new Defender, he was the obvious choice. Inside the Forest of Ethereal Eyes, his last thought before getting lost involved regrets. He abandoned a wife and child just to answer a stupid call from a rotting place. Who’d take care of the elders, or hunt, or keep the community strings? Why Gram volunteered itself, with so many villages around the cursed greens? Yes, the wanderer had the blood of Agnarr the Third, and his grandfather, Randúlf of Gram, was the last man to walk the Defenders’s path. And his people suffered with a plague, entire families succumbed to the bad omens. While the wanderer was giving his best to support the commoners, the houses prayed for a miracle. Useless, they were all useless, and with the damn Temple call, they gave in to false hopes, throwing away one of their few remaining strong arms.
They didn’t even follow the tradition of giving the wanderer the best sword, made by the greatest blade smith alive, as an offering to the priests. Was that the reason of his sudden faint? Because now, misplacing a tree trunk, the wanderer hugged the shadows as his body fell into snow.
“Not now”, he begged.
“I can’t die for nothing!” He could only swear and close the eyes, searching frozen tears.
“I will NOT die for nothing!”. Unconscious resolution, it burned within the wanderer, and his entire body tingled with molten blood. He tried to get up, but ended on his knees.
“Better than nothing”, said the reanimated mind. Perhaps he really was the Chosen One, son of Agnarr the Third, following the World Defender’s path. Perhaps he’d find the temple without an offering, and thus become the first to use his bare knuckles as weapons against the Hellspawn. Nevertheless, when the wanderer brushed his hair away from sight, something stared at him through the snowstorm. A living shadow, with Ethereal Eyes.