The Mage stopped and stared hard at the carcass of a dragon being butchered at the edge of the camp. The two guards escorting him also stopped and glanced at each other apprehensively. Even veterans such as they were deferential to a Mage. Especially to a Mage whose legend has preceded him.
The wind shifted suddenly, and the acrid stench from the carcass drifted towards them. The two guards at either side recoiled in disgust, but the Mage calmly continued. The two guards hurried to keep pace with the Mage's long stride. The Mage took little notice of his guards' discomfort. Such is the character of Mages.
The Mage was escorted to the tent near the center of the camp. They stopped at the entrance when a quiet but powerful voice called out from within. "Only our guest. Guards, see that we are left undisturbed."
The Mage pulled aside the heavy cloth of the tent and stepped into the dim light. Waiting for him was a man dressed in the flowing robes of the desert raiders, reclining on a multitude of cushions. He looked up at the Mage with a look of mingled pleasure and apprehension.
"You are Kerrock," began the man.
"I prefer the title of the Dragon Mage," said the Mage forcefully, drawing himself up straight and drawing his brown cloak together with his right hand, the hand that bore the curling silver ring of a dragon in flight that is his namesake.
"So be it, Dragon Mage," answered the man. "Your legend has preceded yourself. I am Abarkis." He bowed his head and touched his left hand to his forehead in the traditional greeting of the desert, then brought his right hand into view, holding a loaded crossbow aimed directly at the Mage's heart.
"Remove your ring and place it in the box at your feet," Abarkis commanded.
The command was answered by a cold stare by the Mage and the clenching of his right hand into a fist.
"The dragon magic in your ring is indeed fast and quite deadly," said Abarkis, "but a crossbow is equally deadly, and is much faster."
The Mage looked from the crossbow down to his fist, then slowly unclenched it and drew the ring off his finger. He stooped and placed the ring within the wooden box.
"Close the lid."
The Mage stood and flipped the lid shut with his booted foot, hearing it latch shut, then stepped back.
"That is all. You may go now," said Abarkis, dismissing the Mage while uncocking his crossbow and laying it to the side.
The Mage cocked his head, as if he had not heard correctly. "Why?" he asked quietly.
Abarkis laughed from his stomach, a deep rolling laugh. "Of all the questions to ask, you ask why. Well, why what?"
"Why did you want my ring?" the Mage replied calmly. "Why are you willing to let me leave? If you wanted only my ring, why didn't you just kill me? And why should I leave without my ring, my namesake?"
Abarkis laughed again. "Obviously my reputation is not not as wide-spread as yours is. I am better known as Abarkis Dragons'-scourge, and I and my men destroy dragons. Any and all dragons." He grinned under his moustache. "For a price, although sometimes for practice. And this time," he said, pointing at the wooden box, "for principle.
"As for why I am letting you go without killing you, I see no reason to. You are no threat to me now."
The Mage threw back his cloak and raised his cupped hands before him, which began to glow in the darkness with a silver light. "I was a Mage long before I fought the Dragon, and your crossbow is no longer so quick."
Abarkis drew back his tunic and bared his chest, revealing a wealth of cabalistic signs and runes. "I do not fear you and your Mage's magic. I am proof against any sword or spell, claw or accident. Save that of a dragon."
The Mage stepped forward, relaxing his hands. Abarkis grinned broadly. "I see you recognize the runes and the power bound in them."
The Mage nodded slowly. "I also see why you kill Dragons."
"It is quite profitable," Abarkis chuckled. "I and my men are very expensive, but very experienced."
"And just how many Dragons have you and your men killed in your career?" asked the Mage coldly.
"Since when have Mages begun to care for Dragons?" Abarkis laughed scornfully at the Mage, who returned him a cold, hard glare. "Mages and Dragons are arch-rivals for mastery in sorcerous power; your legend is only the latest in a wealth of such tales."
The Mage continued, his voice resonating through the tent. "My legend has preceded me, you said. The legend of how a great Mage conquered a Dragon; the victor binding the vanquished into a silver ring."
The Mage stepped closer. His shadow rippled on the wall of the tent behind him. Abarkis stared at the shadow over the Mage's shoulder in mingled surprise and growing fear. The Mage continued, his voice softer with barely concealed contempt. "But what the legend does not tell is this: the Mage lost."
There was a sound of tearing cloth and one strangled cry. When Abarkis' men entered the tent, it was empty except for his cruelly-slashed body, covered by a torn brown cloak and the splinters of a small wooden box.