“Come on, just admit it!”
“Shut up, Steve! No, nothing happened that night.”
“Oh really? I bet Jay here heard the story too.”
With that, he turned to Jay who walked a couple of steps behind us.
“I am really not interested in whatever bullshit you guys are talking about.”
Steve looked from him back to me.
“Tch, you guys are no fun.”
With that, he sped up a bit and took the lead. I rechecked my phone. It was already long past eleven in the evening.
“Yo, Jay, you sure that campsite is up here? Like anywhere?”
“It should be pretty close,” he said without looking at me.
“That’s what you said half an hour ago, man. Can’t you check Google Maps or something?”
He took out his phone, looked at it for a couple of seconds before putting it back in his pocket.
“Got no signal out here.”
“Are you freaking kidding me? We are in the middle of this freaking forest and-”
“Hey guys, look at that!” Steve called out to us.
Jay and I came over to where he was standing. He was holding up his phone to illuminate a wooden signpost. I looked at the thing, then back at him not sure what the big deal was.
“What’s so special about it?”
“Did you read it, Paul?”
I looked at the thing again. The first sign pointed into the direction of the town we’d come from and where we parked the car. The second one to our right, in the direction of some village. The third one pointed up ahead. It indicated that in the distance of half a kilometer we’d find ‘The Thirsty Boar’. The little beer mug symbol next to it showed that the place must be a tavern or bar.
I looked back at Steve, still not sure what he wanted.
“Come on guys. It says it is only about half a kilometer away. We can get a drink or two, and maybe we find someone who can tell us where the hell the campsite is.”
“You really think the place will be open? How do you even know if it still exists?”
“The campsite is in the same direction anyway. We might as well give it a try.” Jay said from behind.
“How the hell do you even know that? For all we know, we wandered in the wrong direction ages ago,” I countered. “We should go back and sleep in the car tonight.”
The two of them stared at me, giving me a look like I’d said something completely outrageous.
“Dude, we’ve been walking for almost an hour. There’s no freaking way I walk all the way back to the car!” Steve started.
“He’s got a point, Paul. It’s also not that far away.”
In the end, I mumbled a curse to myself and followed them. Every once in a while I took out my phone, but it was the same as with Jay’s, no signal at all.
We trudged onwards on the small path. After a good quarter of an hour, I could make out some low noise ahead. The other two noticed it as well, and we hastened our pace. Soon we heard the low humming of music, and we made out the first signs of light between the trees. A short while later we arrived at an old tavern. There was no need to search for a sign. The giant, metal boar head over the entrance told us we’d made it.
The Thirsty Boar was right in front of us.
“This place must be a century old,” I said as I looked at the plaster that was flaking off the walls here and there.
The color of the wood paneling of the second story had faded almost entirely. Now was only a worm-eaten, half-rotten mess left.
Regardless of how bad the place looked, the lights were on, and music was coming from inside.
“Might as well give it a try,” Steve said, winking at us.
We went to the big door, and he pulled it open. We were greeted by a mixture of cigarette smoke, sweat, and booze.
“Jesus,” Jay cursed, making a disgusted face.
Steve didn’t seem to mind at all and walked inside. He walked ahead and opened the door to the guestroom.
“What’s with that music?” Jay asked.
“No idea, reminds me of the stuff my grandpa used to listen to,” I answered, “maybe some old folk stuff?”
“Oh God no, I hate this stuff.”
Steve had already entered, and we hurried after him. I thought about it, maybe it was the place’s gig? Trying to emulate the old times? The name and the interior hinted at it.
What was even more prevalent than the old style was how shady and run down the place was. It gave off the impression that it had never been renovated or modernized. At the end of the guestroom was a simple wooden counter with a few bar stools in front of it. In the center of the guestroom was a low-dangling, old lamp. It was so yellowed and dirtied by the smoke that what little light it produced was barely enough to illuminate the place.
As Jay and I followed Steve to the counter, I looked around the room. There were a few tables, place against the walls of the room at random. Here and there a few figures were sitting together. Some of them looked up as we entered. Their faces were haggard and indifferent. They soon went back to their conversations and drinks. Here and there I could see a few figures cowering in the corners, where the light almost couldn’t reach them. I didn’t have the best feeling about the place.
The barkeeper was a sturdy man. When we reached the counter, he was busy pouring a beer for another patron.
Before we could even ask for a drink, he gave us a skeptical once-over.
“You boys sure you want to spend the night at an old place like this?”
He spoke in so thick a local dialect that it took me a moment to understand what he’d asked us. Guess even he knew how bad the place looked.
“Now that we’re here, we might as well have a drink,” Jay said. I shrugged and then nodded in agreement.
“Make it three beers, one for each of us,” Steve said.
The man nodded, but his face didn’t light up or show any emotion, other than the initial disdain he’d given us.
Once we’d gotten our beers, we looked around the room for an empty table. We soon found one.
“Man this place is shady,” Jay said in a low voice, looking over his shoulder to make sure no one heard him.
“It’s not all bad guys, at least we got beer.”
With that Steve rose his glass for cheers. We didn’t react.
“What do you mean by that Steve, the place’s a shithole,” I said giving Jay a nod.
After a few minutes more of this, one of the patrons of the next table turned towards us.
“You fine gentlemen don’t seem to be too fond of this place. The Thirsty Boar might not be much to look at now, but the place has quite the history.”
I didn’t say anything. This guy’s way of speaking and his friendly expression were both way too overdrawn. It was nothing but a facade. The long gray hair and the goatee didn’t help the cause much either.
“Well sorry, we didn’t mean to-”
“What’s so interesting about the place’s history?” Steve cut me off.
Now the man’s face showed a sly smile. I could see how he picked up his mug of beer and hat and got up. He wore an old black suit and walked in a hunched way. His appearance made him even more comical. With only two steps he was over at our table and sat down.
“Well gentlemen, this place is old, very old. You could almost go so far to say that this place has always been around in one way or another. But let’s not be rude, my name is Curt.”
We all introduced ourselves one after another. Curt’s face was all smiles.
“So you are interested in the history of the place?” he asked once more.
Steve still nodded. Jay sat there and took out his phone, playing some game. I didn’t say anything, took another sip of my beer, but listened.
The place had never been too popular, the man began. A specific clientele always frequented it. As I let my eyes wander over the rest of the room again, I knew what he was talking about. There was a time though, Curt said, when the place was quite notorious. As the stories go, the tavern was well known for housing a local black market. It was during the times of World War One and the inflation following it. Quite a few people came here to exchange their last belongings for something to eat.
“Others,” Curt said with a bright smile on his face, “came to bet.”
Steve looked up.
“What do you mean by bet?”
“You could say, my friend, that his place was also a gambling den. Instead of trading in your belongings, you could also stake them in a game. Some won, others,” and at that, he leaned forward, “lost everything.”
“Lost everything?” I asked. Curt smiled but didn’t answer right away.
“Well gentlemen, there is the story of farmer Heinrich. Rich man, but prone to certain, habits. You could say he often drank a tad bit too much. Often caused some trouble with the Missus at home. Drove him right to this very place here. Then, one night, in a drunken stupor, he lost everything. His money, his livestock, even the farm. Of course, Heinrich was also an arrogant man. When the game ended, he didn’t want to pay up and tried to leave. And that was it.”
“That was what? What happened to him?” Steve asked.
Curt now showed a malignant smile that was all teeth.
“He was never seen or heard of again.”
I started to smile. This was most likely some local urban legend or horror story. This guy, Curt, was trying to give us a little scare. Too bad, it didn’t work. By now though, my beer was empty.
“Well guess I’ll go get another round, ok guys?”
Steve finished his beer right then. Jay looked up from his game for a moment to give me a short nod.
I made my way towards the bar. I once looked over my shoulder and saw how Curt leaned on the table. He was pushing his upper body as far ahead as possible. What a strange guy.
“Hey there, we’d like to have three more beers, ok?”
The barkeeper looked up at me, then at our table and frowned.
“You shouldn’t talk to that fellow.”
“Curt? He is a bit weird-”
“I’ll say it again, keep your distance from him. I’ll bring the beer over in a minute.”
I went back empty handed on my way through the guest room. My eyes focused on Curt once more. His back was incredibly crooked. If he stands up straight, I thought, he must be two meters tall.
As I sat back, Jay looked up again.
“The barkeeper brings them over in a bit. What did I miss?”
I saw Curt had taken out a pack of Skat cards. As he shuffled through the deck, I could see how old and worn the cards were. They were yellowed, and the edges were dirty and roughed up.
“The fool said he’d play a game.”
“Hey Paul, you’re in, right? It’s Skat!”
I felt how Curt’s eyes focused on me. There was a certain glow in his eyes. The way he glared at me was a little unsettling. For a moment his smile seemed to grow in anticipation of my answer. I shook my head and leaned back.
“Nah, I haven’t played the game in ages. I am good.”
“Oh come on, first Jay and now you too? Why are you guys always such bores?!”
It was at this point that the barkeeper arrived at our table.
“Why don’t you return to your table, Curt?” I don’t think the boys want to play any of your games. And you,” he said looking first at me and then my friends, “You better get out of here.”
“Oh, but this gentleman here already agreed to play,” Curt said with a bright smile pointing at Steve.
The barkeeper shook his head and made his way back to the counter.
What was that all about, I wondered? I looked over at Jay, but he had already returned to his game.
“Need one more?” A man who’d appeared next to Curt asked all of a sudden.
Curt beamed at the newcomer.
“Oh, indeed we do! Sit down, friend, sit down.”
Jay and I moved our chairs a bit, so there was more room for the man at the table. As he sat down, I looked at him. He was grinning, but that was all there was to him. The rest of his face was empty. There were no defining features at all. The only thing I was able to tell is that he was quite old.
“I assume you know the rules of the game, right?” Curt asked, turning to Steve.
“Played a few times in the past, I guess I know more or less,” he answered in an upbeat way.
“Guess that will have to do. The rules are simple. If a player reaches two-hundred points, he wins, and the other two lose. If a player falls below negative two hundred points, he loses and the other two win. Whichever happens first.”
Now Skat is quite a complicated game, especially if you didn’t know what you were doing.
I had played the game a bit with my grandpa and friends, so I knew a thing or two about it.
I realized pretty soon that Steven wasn’t too bad at it. He didn’t just know the rules ‘more or less’ as he’d said, but he had a solid grasp of the game.
Due to a good hand, Steve was able to win the first round and get a solid lead.
“Well what do you know, you aren’t bad at all,” Curt said laughing out loud.
I could tell from his eyes that he wasn’t too happy with the outcome. As the second round commenced, Curt was much more serious.
It was as if luck had turned on Steve. He had a good hand again, but this time he lost and with it most of his initial points.
As I sat back and watched the play, it seemed almost like cheating. Whenever Steve played a round, Curt and the newcomer countered it in an instant. It looked as if they always had the right cards.
Curt, on the other hand, won his rounds with ease. His hands were too good to be beaten.
The newcomer didn’t do much more than to play the third wheel in this game. A few times I even noticed that he was supporting Curt against Steve.
In the end, it took no more than half an hour before Steve lost the game. I could see the annoyance on his face as Curt proclaimed in a bellowing voice that the game’s loser had been decided.
Steve scowled at Curt for making a big deal out of it. What he didn’t notice was how all faces in the guest room turned into our direction. I felt watched, almost cornered.
“Hey, I think-” I started, but again Steve cut me off.
“How did you do it?” Steve asked, turning into Curt’s direction.
“There is no way this was skill or luck.”
“What are you trying to say, my friend? You lost, that’s all there is to it.”
Steve shrugged and got up.
“Let’s go, guys, I’ve got enough this shit,” he said to Jay and me.
I gave a quick nod to Jay. As we were about to get up, Curt’s face showed his sly smile again.
“Now hold on for a moment. There is one rule above all else in The Thirsty Boar. Each game here is a gamble. The loser has to pay up.”
“We never said anything about a gamble,” Steve started, “I don’t care about any of your damned rules. I won’t pay you shit, especially since you chea-”
“But you agreed to play a game, which means you agreed to the rules.”
“Okay, fuck this,” I said and got up.
The situation had grown more than a bit unsettling. With that Jay got up as well and we all turned from Curt towards the exit.
“I wouldn’t think of leaving like that my dear gentlemen. The Boar is indeed a very thirsty place,” Curt said from behind.
We hadn’t so much as taken a few steps before many of the other patrons got up. A few of them stepped in front of the exit door.
“How much do you want?” Steve asked with clenched teeth and took out his wallet. The rest of us turned around to look at Curt as well.
“Oh, you seem to misunderstand.”
Finally, the man got up. This time he straightened his back. As he did, I involuntarily took a step back. Curt was huge, much taller than two meters, almost gigantic. I couldn’t help but feel that the light of the old lamp grew even dimmer.
The smile on his face grew wider as he stood there. His eyes too became bulging and changed to a darker, reddish tone.
“Money was important in the old times, but not anymore. It has no value here. It is something entirely different I want.”
“Then what the hell do you want, you freak?” Steve asked in a loud voice that he no doubt wanted to sound imposing. It came out, sounding like a frightful shriek.
“Shouldn’t have joined him in his game boys,” the barkeeper called out to us from behind the counter. “Nothing I can do now.”
I watched as Curt’s grin extended beyond what should be physically possible. It almost divided his face.
“What the fuck is going on?” I heard Jay pip up close to me.
Curt’s whole body was growing taller as if absorbing the dim light and the darkness around him. His eyes were now bulging red orbs. His hands were opening and closing in anticipation. Right at this moment, Steve turned to run, but two of the patrons jumped at him to hold him in place.
“Hey, what the fuck are you doing!?” I yelled, but before I could help him, I found myself restrained by multiple hands as well. Finally one closed over my mouth, muffling my voice.
In front of me, I saw how the abomination that had been the man named Curt opened his gigantic mouth.
“It is your soul I want.”
And before another second passed, Curt’s hands shot forward and closed around Steve’s shoulders. The two men who’d held him backed away.
I tried to move, to free myself, but the more I struggled, the harder the grip of the men holding me got.
Steve started to scream out in desperation. He called for Jay and me to help, but there was nothing any of us could do. I saw how Curt’s monstrous head jerked forward, his face right in front of Steve’s. They were almost touching.
Then the thing’s eyes changed to a mesmerizing, iridescent glow. Steve’s screams and his struggling died down. The muscles in his whole body went limp. His face changed as his mouth fell open and his expression grew empty. Then his skin slumped down as if melting off before he withered.
After no more than ten seconds it was over. Steve was no more than an empty, withered shell that was held up by the monstrous hands. As Steve’s remains hit the ground, the wallet he’d been still holding fell to the ground next to him. At the same time, Jay and I were released.
For a moment I stood there, dumbfounded and in disbelief, rubbing my aching limbs. For a few moments, my brain couldn’t comprehend what had happened. Reality itself had changed and warped to an absolute impossibility right in front of me. The abomination had already turned back into its human form. Now again the man named Curt smiled at us. With the same sleazy voice as before, he asked us:
“Would any of you two be interested in a little game as well?”
It was then that I finally shook off my despair and got control of my body again. I pushed the way through the many dark figures in the room towards the exit. Only moments later I was out in the dark of the night, running from the place.
“I don’t know where he is!” Jay yelled at me.
“Fuck! He must be somewhere. Just what the hell happened last night?”
“I don’t fucking know Paul!”
I’d woken up in the car the next morning. I couldn’t remember how I got back. There were bits and piece of my desperate run through the forest. There were parts of Jay and me on the dirt path back. That was all there was.
I jerked up in fear within moments, calling out for my friends. Only Jay answered.
As we argued back and force, we kept scanning the area around the parking lot. It wasn’t long before we kept calling out for Steve, but we got no answer.
Jay and I had agreed that last night’s events couldn’t have been real. Maybe they’d drugged our drinks. Perhaps there had been something the air. Or it had all been some strange, vivid dream. There was no way the abomination we’d seen had been real.
Still, after Steve hadn’t turned up after another hour of searching, we made our way into the forest. We followed the path until we reached the old signpost. From there we continued on the same path as the night before.
Finally, we found the place where the old tavern was supposed to be. Instead, we found an ancient ruin. Only the first story of the building remained. As Jay and I stepped closer, we saw the same old boar head. Now it was not shinning anymore, but old and rusted.
“There is no way…” Jay murmured.
As if in a trance I walked forward. There was no front door anymore. The inside was in complete ruin and overgrown. One of the walls was missing. Between the grass and the small bushes, I saw the decomposed remains of an old wooden counter.
“Paul, what the hell is going on here?” Jay asked, but I didn’t answer him.
I had noticed something in the middle under the rubble. I stepped forward and started to push bits of it to the side.
Finally, I saw what was below. It was a skeleton. A few old, rotten fibers still clung to it. As I looked at it, I noticed a dirty, old leather purse right next to it.
With shaking hands, I picked it up. As I scanned through the contents, there was no doubt about the horror that had taken place in The Thirsty Boar.