Sergei turned and saw a man in an impeccable suit, a fedora, dark sunglasses and carrying a cane swaggered through the door. The locked door. Around him, shadows gathered and flickered as though there was a campfire burning on every side of him.
“I fear the young lady has misled you.” His voice was smooth and urbane. “What she has taken cannot be returned without proper recompense.”
“Excuse me friend, but the bar is closed.” Sergei asked, feeling somehow less intimidated than he thought he would.
“Yes. How fortunate for me that there will be nobody to see. Nobody to stop what must be done.” Ethad said, his voice still silky smooth and calm.
“You won it in a game correct?” Sergei asked with a smile. “Well then I challenge you.”
“What do you wager?” Ethad asked, pulling out a chair and sitting at one of the tables. He pulled a long thin cigar from an inner pocket and bit off the tip before lighting it with an old fashioned strike anywhere match.
“My bar.” Sergei said, “It’s my life’s work.”
“That’s an interesting offer, however I don’t need real estate.” Ethad said, blowing a smoke ring. “I’m thinking of something a little more valuable. After all, what the young lady has stolen is worth more than you can imagine.”
“What did she steal?” He asked, “I never was clear on that.”
“It does not matter to you.” Ethad said, “But if you must know, she stole knowledge.”
“What do you want me to bet then?” Sergei asked, “And what game will we play?”
“To keep it interesting, we will play a game that matches your abilities. Since you own a bar, we shall play a drinking game.” Ethad took off his sunglasses and where his eyes should be was nothing but pits of utter darkness. “You shall bet your immortal soul of course.”
Sergei swallowed hard, but a glance over his shoulder showed Corva’s large frightened eyes and his spine stiffened. “Is that all? I’m pretty sure that’s long gone to many a vice or broken promise.” He moved to the bar and took the half full bottle of Laphroig down along with two glasses.
He sat down across from his opponent and poured them each a shot. Something settled over him; a power with a force beyond his imagination. The pact had been made. The stage was set. What had he gotten himself into? Still, his blood boiled with excitement. He had never felt so alive.
“The game is an old one. It is called by many different names, but I call it Flip.” Ethad smiled and withdrew an old belt dagger from a sheath beneath his suit coat. The weapon was worn, but obviously well cared for. The edge glittered wickedly.
Sergei raised an eyebrow and waited, amazed that he was feeling so calm and collected. Perhaps it was the sheer absurdity of the situation. Maybe it was Corva’s apparent dependence on him. More likely he’d just lost his mind.
“The game is played by flipping the blade a certain way a certain number of times and having it end by sticking point down into the wood of the table.” Ethad said. “If you fail to stick the blade, you must take a drink. Every five flips you must take a drink. The game ends when you are incapacitated or bleed to death.”
“Bleed to death?” Sergei asked, “Why would that be an issue?”
“Some of the flips later in the game require very good aim.” Ethad said, “Shall we begin?”
The first few flips were simple. Held in the hand, off the back of the hand, off the thumb, off the wrist. The blade was very sharp and Sergei did accidentally cut himself more than once, although they were more of an annoyance than anything else. After five flips, they each drank.
Now the challenges were more difficult, but Sergei found the balance of Ethad’s blade to his liking and the game was a fun and interesting one. Five more flips and they each took another drink. Sergei began to sweat as the moves became harder, but he managed to stick another five and they each drank again.
“You are showing more skill than I had anticipated.” Ethad said, “It appears the bottle is almost empty. It has been years, decades even since I have enjoyed myself this much.”
Sergei missed the next flip, recovered and made the next three and missed the fifth. The bottle was empty and the alcohol was beginning to cloud his dexterity. Ethad seemed to be unaffected and flicked the point of his knife into the tabletop with almost contemptuous ease.
“I’d better get another bottle.” Sergei said, rising unsteadily. “We both have to drink after that last move.”
He walked to the bar and took another bottle of Laphroig. His fingers shook as he was unwrapping the foil. Reaching into his apron pocket he took out a tissue and wiped the sweat off his forehead and tossed it into the trash. Picking up the bottle and a new pair of glasses he walked back to the table where Ethad sat calmly.
Sergei poured them each a shot and couldn’t help but savor the whisky as he drank it. Even if it was bringing him ever closer to being killed. To being worse than killed.
Ethad had tossed back his drink and picked up his knife for the next move. A strange look crossed his face and he lost his grip on the aged wooden handle.
“What did you do to me?” He snarled, his voice a dangerous rasp.
Sergei blinked in surprise, noting that a red flush had begun to spread from the other man’s alabaster white neck. Ethad began to make a choking sound, each breath becoming more of a struggle. The realization of what must have happened struck him.
The tissue. The wood sliver. Corva had said it was hawthorn and it had hurt her. She was somehow the same as Ethad.
“You left some of your hawthorn in her wound.” Sergei said, feeling a sardonic grin slide over his face. “It must have found its way into your drink somehow. What a shame.”
Ethad stood, his clothes bleeding and changing into a cloak with a deep cowl. His dagger lengthened and changed, shaping itself into a wickedly sharp scythe with a handle made of the same dark wood as the knife hilt, the butt end sharpened to a needle point.
“You have forced me to shuffle off that which allows me to tread on mortal earth once again Trickster.” The moniker rang in Sergei’s head like a silver bell. “Your accomplice can keep the knowledge of Fire she stole. For now.”
Death faded from view, the gleaming silver of his scythe with its handle of hawthorn being the last thing to vanish. Sergei spun to look at Corva, and instead of a wounded girl in layers of jackets a large raven perched on the back of the chair. She cocked her head at him, one eye deliberately winking.
“You remembered your blood in the end.” She said, her voice sounding no different for coming from a bird’s beak.
“Just lucky.” Sergei said, “I didn’t remember anything.”
“Blood doesn’t forget, even if you don’t remember Trickster.” Corva replied and flew up and out the door as it opened to admit Chelsea.
“Sergei?” She said, surprise in her voice. “What was that wind just now?”
“Never mind the wind.” He said, sitting down hard, but feeling the sardonic smile come back. “Come and have a drink with me.”