The old man hurried.
Overcast and blustery, leaden skies filled the waning day with roiling clouds driven by a fitful westerly. The promised rainstorm had not yet eventuated, but as thunder rumbled ominously over the eastern mountain range ahead of him the elderly traveler paused to study the looming weather.
"I'll wager there's snow behind that coming rain," he muttered to the fur-wrapped bundle clutched tightly to his chest. An answering gurgle prompted the old-timer to part the strips of pelt swaddling clothing the infant, who in response tugged playfully at the other's dangly, silvery beard. Lowering the cowl of his travel cloak, his flowing mane of white hair whipped by the gusting wind, the oldster's stern and weathered countenance softened slightly as he regarded the playful babe.
"Why do grown-ups insist on talking to babies when they know full well they'll not be understood," he snorted, its chubby fingers investigating the silky grayness of his lengthy whiskers. "Idiocy!" Disentangling his impressively long beard from the baby's exploring hands, the aged caregiver returned the youngster to the insulating warmth of its fur wrap to ward off the late afternoon chill of early winter.
"We had best find shelter for the night, little fellow," murmured the old man, disregarding his own ridicule over conversing with infants. Casting a cursory second glance skywards at the sullen cloudbanks, he pointedly added, "Preferably somewhere waterproof."
Hastening across the boulder-strewn plain fronting the equally desolate foothills, the old man walked with a briskness that belied his years and habitual use of the gnarled wooden staff he leaned upon. With remarkable surety he picked his way through the jumble of rocks littering the bleak landscape, stopping periodically to gauge his bearings in the fading light. To his right foamed the wild rapids of a swift river sourced by the purple-hued peaks lying due east. Angling away from the rushing watercourse with his infant ward, the old-timer made for a vertical crack in the rocky hill face a shade darker than the pervading grayness. He reached his goal just as the first heavy raindrops spattered haphazardly upon the arid, stony ground.
"Looks inviting," he grumbled aloud, peering into the dimness of the cave lying beyond the opening. Squeezing sideways through the gap, he inched into the grotto, muttering an incantation as he sidled inside. An instant later the rounded crown of his staff flared with bluish brilliance to illuminate the grotto. "It's not the Palatial Inn at Alberion, but it'll suffice," the old man commented absently whilst inspecting the hillside abode with a critical eye.
Little more than a fissure in the foundations of the mountainous uplands, the chamber was barely five feet across and perhaps twice that in length, the leeward wall slanting inwards to form an angled ceiling overhead. The rear of the naturally formed dugout was littered with debris from a past cave-in, halving the habitable space of the already cramped interior: hardly spacious, but welcome shelter from the breaking storm.
Leaning his magically lit staff in the doorway, the aged conjurer unfastened his cloak to lay it on the cave floor before placing the infant upon the travel stained garment. Casting about, he selected a goodly sized rock from the rubble pile behind and, setting the granite chunk before him, wove an unspoken spell with his bony fingers. A fiery redness instantly radiated outwards from the core of the shard, the superheated stone bathing the chamber with its warming, ruddy glow.
Grunting satisfactorily at his magicked heat and light, the oldster extinguished his lighted staff with a curt word of command. He then slipped the leather holdall from his shoulder and dropped it to the ground with a clatter, straightening the smock of nondescript homespun he wore as an undergarment. The cooing baby did not even flinch at the disturbance. Kneeling, the old man said, "You westerlings are made of stern stuff." Frowning as he unwrapped the infant, he wrinkled his hooked nose and gagged. "Pity it keeps coming out so often," he observed, changing the soiled nappy with fresh linen from his worn travel case.
Outdoors, the waterlogged heavens unleashed its pent-up moisture in a steady downpour. Booming thunderclaps echoed throughout the lonesome hills close on the heels of lightning flashes that stabbed the darkening sky with fleeting displays of crackling luminosity. Indoors, the cave remained comfortingly warm and dry for those sheltering from the teeming rain and biting cold assailing the windswept plain.
"I bet you're hungry as well," the magician mused, despite his charge not wailing to be fed. Rummaging through his satchel, he produced a small gourd filled with goat's milk and proceeded to feed the unnaturally quiet infant. After the baby boy had drunk his fill and been burped, he was returned to the cloak and wrapped anew in his furred swaddling, smiling merrily at his guardian. Murmuring babyish sounds of contentment, the youngster was soon lulled into sleep by the pattering rainfall outside.
Envying the trusting innocence of the napping child, the oldster made himself as comfortable as he could in the confines of their narrow shelter and became lost in his own private thoughts. Seated before the glowing rock, his wrinkled hands held palm outwards to draw its radiant warmth, the contemplative wizard at first failed to notice the image forming in the shimmering heat haze above the firestone. With a sharp intake of breath he suddenly realized that a face-like apparition of wavering reddish transparency now hovered in the warmed air, steadily gaining definition until the countenance of an old man stared back at him.
"Omelchor!" hissed the spellcaster.
The ancient traveler might well have been looking into a mirror, were it not for the shoulder length locks and close-cropped whiskers sported by his pink-haired reflection. Startlingly identical, the brooding face was thin, even gaunt looking, with a hook of a nose and shaggy eyebrows overhanging intensely penetrating eyes of flinty purple. The age lines creasing the leathery skin were equally complex and mapped a lifetime of experiences measured far beyond the span of mortal man. But while the old-timer in the cave demonstrated a gruff kindliness, this spectral face exuded an unmistakable air of malevolence.
"Hello, brother dearest." The phantom head's silky voiced greeting was devoid of friendliness.
The old man sneered at the glowering image. "You're slipping, Omel. I had expected you to locate me sooner."
"Sorry to disappoint you, but had you used your magic earlier I would surely have found you before now." Omelchor's disjointed head pivoted downwards to view the makeshift fire with disdain. "Enkindled rock? An unimaginative spell, even by your limited standards."
The longer-haired old man shrugged indifferently.
"I have to admit I'm a little put out that you didn't bother to pay me a call during your visit to the West. Common courtesy and all that."
"I didn't want to impose."
Omelchor chuckled mirthlessly. "How thoughtful of you." Spying the sleeping infant, the dislocated necromancer arched an eyebrow curiously. "Adopting western foundlings now, my brother?"
"Don't call me that."
"You forsook that right fifteen hundred years ago."
Feigning shock, Omelchor complained, "Do you still bear a grudge over that little misunderstanding?"
"Abducting my wife and slaying her sister was hardly a mere trifle," growled the old wizard.
"You know what they say about bygones."
"Your actions remain unforgivable."
"From your standpoint: for myself, they were necessary indulgences. Norelda really has been much happier in my company since. She is still quite a fetching mistress after all these centuries."
Feeling like a caged animal suffering the taunts of a sadistic keeper, the cornered magician rose and attempted to pace, only to find himself hampered by the smallness of the fissure and the slumbering babe. He settled for turning his back to the mocking face. "This conversation bores me," he declared irritably. "Goodbye."
"You are aware it's punishable under Eastern Realms law."
"Kidnapping. A crime of deadlier seriousness where an innocent child is concerned."
The mage inclined his head defensively. "I did not snatch this boy."
"I beg to differ, brother. Perhaps a stretch inside the infamous prison of Foran Dearth will clarify your obviously clouded perspective."
"Considering the Western Provinces condone the practice of slavery, your moralizing is inappropriate."
Omelchor disagreed. "Semantics aside, you have stolen a native of Carnach."
"I prefer the term liberated."
"Whatever. In my capacity as empowered guardian of the western peoples, I cannot sit idly by. Do you actually think you can raise this babe to be a champion of the East?"
"It shall be his Destiny."
This time Omelchor's laugh was annoyingly genuine. "And you chastised me in the past for interfering in the natural progress of the Fellow Races. Come now, brother. Even you cannot fail to see the irony of perverting your own preaching."
"Surely western prophecies mention the emergence of a Carnachian warrior destined to shape history," retorted the accused magician.
"That is a matter of interpretation. We both know the difficulties of deciphering augurs with any degree of accuracy. But you taking it upon yourself to secure a pet westerner is a good indicator." Omelchor's visage hardened. "I will hunt him down."
The old conjurer shuffled to stand protectively over the defenseless babe, blissfully sound asleep. "You'll not find him. Come daybreak we'll cross Tarndeth Ward to be lost in Anarican territory."
"We shall see. A tamed Goblin hiding out in the princedom of Men shouldn't be terribly hard to track down. And then I will seal his Fate." The grim-faced necromancer grinned wickedly in a plain gesture of promised violence.
"Overconfidence has ever been your weakness, Omelchor. Delightful though this reunion has been, I tire of your witless repartee."
"Magically I am your better, Maldoch, and the master you foolishly serve is but a puny weakling in comparison to the glory of my goddess. You are doomed to failure. Fate is stronger than Destiny."
"Believe what fantasies you will, my deranged brother. In the end the best spellcaster on the day shall prevail. Now begone!" The irked wizard dismissed the insubstantial image into nothingness with a perfunctory wave of his hand, but the strain of quashing his rival's magic wearied him.
Slumping as if he personally bore the weight of the known world upon him, the aged wizard squared his shoulders with a sigh of resignation and stared listlessly out into the rainy night for a long moment. Inexplicably saddened, he swung his gaze back upon the dozing infant, thinking: So young and dependent. The future peacekeeper of all Terrath and without even a name.