It was not much of a bar, but neither was it much of a place. Rusted tin let in every breeze and black fly, but the wooden frame of the cowshed was sound enough, and someone had carted out the valuable manure so long ago only a trace of the smell clung to the old walls. The Russian had laid a plank on a pair of oil drums, and that was the bar. Patrons wandered in, following the chemical smell of the distillery, and brought their own cups and glasses.
No credit was given, or asked for.
In such a place, entertainment is rarely complex. No fine tables marked with runes, no handsome glasses edged with gold, no rare vintages. For them, the gameboard was an old wooden square set out for checkers, the outer rim scratched with the most basic, muddled inscription imaginable - probably useless, but it was the form of the thing.
The sun hung low, and by ones and twos the customers drifted in. Some paid, others bartered; none drank for free. Some had camp stools, the others stood or sat on whatever crates were available. Even the board was set up on an oil drum, and the players stood in front of it.
Andolei had been winning too much, he knew, and he should move on, or else lose a match. A player who was too good upset the nature of the place; a player who could not be beat was boring to watch, and frustrating for those who lost. So the stakes would be raised again and again, until they broke.
So tonight Andolei stood on one side of the board, and three other players crowded the board. Four shots made a cross in the center of the board. Normally, in this setup, it would be a partners match. But Andolei had been winning too much. Three on one. The only chance they'd given him was a double-shot, a glass twice as tall as the others, to help the betting.
The bettors hushed, and as one the four reached down and raised their glasses, clanked them together, to spill a little in each. The others muttered their mystic toasts, but Andolei just raised his chin and slugged it down.
Clear fire hit the back of his mouth, and washed down his throat to sit in his stomach and burn like a pool of acid. Cold, clear, medicinal: vodka was a drink for those who could not stomach an honest cocktail, or could not afford it. The good stuff had some flavor to it, but this was closer to neutral spirit, raw and shapeless, probably brought over as aftershave and filtered out.
Andolei held it as long as he could, letting the others place out. Misty shapes covered the board, little columns of cloud in a square of fog. Three players, three columns, defined only by the hint of horn or claw.
Then Andolei opened his mouth, as if to whistle. A breeze blew down onto the board, and it cleared the fog away in a circle on his part of the board. Something heavier than air oozed from his lips, nearly invisible, but it gained color as it dripped, and by the time it hit the gameboard it was a small, swirling column like a miniature tornado, spinning clockwise.
As one, the three cloudy spirits moved forward as Andolei's vortex spun faster and faster, growing smaller and smaller. Misty claws slashed at the edges of it, but the other players were on edge; they had not seen this before, were not sure what Andolei was doing. But as it shrank, they grew closer, bolder, their forms gaining a little more definition - arms tipped with claws like a bear on the left arm, like a lobster or crab on the right. They tried to tear at the denser substance of Andolei's little vortex, tearing droplets from it.
Perhaps they thought they were winning.
Then, the spark. A column of blue flame shot up ten centimeters from the board as Andolei's spirit took light. It was a batlike-thing with vast thing wings of pale fire, and it moved with the speed of a fuse. In less time than it took to tell of it, those wings surrounded and engulfed the nearest cloudy spirit, which vanished with a pop like a firecrackers; it's player falling back with blistered lips.
The other two tried to run, but it was too late, and soon the board was cleared, the fiery spirit melting into the air as its substance was consumed.
Andolei collected the money, and did not look at the three men with blistered lips, but knew there was murder in their eyes. He had won too much, it was definitely time to go.
A woman waited for him outside. He face was unpainted, but there were strange geometrical scars etched into her skin, around the lips dipping down to her chin. An iron cup dangled from her waist, where it was tied by an iron chain. Andolei stared at her hard.
"I cannot accept a challenge." he said. "Not tonight."
"Not a challenge," she said, the accent was clipped and strange to his ears. "An invitation."
She held up her hand, revealing a small scroll wrapped around a small bottle.
"A contest of champions."
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