“Come on, admit it!”
“Shut up, Steve! No, nothing happened that night.”
“Oh really? That’s not what Jay told me!”
“Well, too bad he isn’t here.”
Steve sighed audibly.
“Yeah, things would be much more fun with him around,” he pressed out in overplayed outrage.
As he took the lead and walked ahead of me, I rechecked my phone. It was already long past eleven in the evening.
“Yo, Steve, you sure that stupid cabin is up here?”
“Should be pretty close by now,” he called out from ahead.
“Dude, that’s what you said half an hour ago. Can you at least check Google Maps or something?”
Steve rummaged through his pockets for a while before he found his phone. He squinted at the screen for a while before he turned it off again.
“Got no signal out here.”
“You kidding me, right? We’re in the middle of the freaking forest and we’ve been walking for god knows-“
“Yo, Paul, look at that,” he suddenly called out.
I frowned and walked over to him. He was holding up his phone and illuminated a wooden signpost. I looked at the thing and then back at him.
“What’s so special about it?”
“Did you read it?”
I looked at the thing again, hoping against all odds to find it pointing towards the cabin we were trying to find. The first sign pointed towards the resting area where we’d parked the car. The second to some village off to our East. The third one pointed up ahead and showed that we were close to a place called ‘The Thirsty Boar’. The little beer mug next to it suggested that the place was a bar or tavern.
I looked back at Steve, frowning. He couldn’t be serious.
“Come on, it’s only about half a kilometer away. We could get a beer or two and ask someone where the cabin is.”
“How d’you know if the place is still around? I bet it’s closed by now, anyway.”
“Yeah, but the cabin’s in the same direction. We might as well try.”
“How do you even know? What if we went in the wrong direction? Shit man, let’s go back and sleep in my car for tonight.”
“What? We’ve been walking for more than an hour. I’m not walking back to the car!” Steve laid into me.
Finally, I sighed, mumbled a curse, and nodded. Maybe we could get directions and wouldn’t mind having a beer.
As I followed him I got out my phone once more, but of course, there was no signal.
We trudged onwards, and I was more and surer that we were completely and utterly lost. Then I heard something from ahead that sounded like faint music. The moment Steve noticed it he hurried onward and I could soon make it signs of light from between the trees. A short while later we arrived at an old tavern. The giant metal boar over the entrance told us we’d made it.
The Thirsty Boar was right in front of us.
“Man, this place looks old,” I pressed out as I looked at it.
Here and there the plaster was flaking off and the wood paneling’s color had almost completely fainted.
Regardless of how bad the place looked, the lights were on and music and muffled laughter reached us.
“Might as well have a look,” Steve said and gave me a wink.
As he pulled open the heavy entrance door, the smell of cigarette smoke, sweat, and stale booze hit us.
“Jesus,” I cursed and instinctively covered my nose.
Steve didn’t seem to mind at all and had already stepped inside. I followed him and frowned when I heard the music.
“What’s with the music?”
“Sounds like the stuff my grandpa used to listen to,” Steve answered. “You know, that old folk stuff.”
“Oh god, I hate that stuff.”
Without even bothering with my remark, Steve made his way towards the bar. When I looked around that everything in here was as old as the exterior. Was this the place’s gig? Trying to emulate old times?
As I followed Steve, I noticed that the place wasn’t just old. It was run down, shady, and dirty, as if it hadn’t been renovated in decades. The low-dangling lamp in the center of the room was so yellowed by cigarette smoke it could barely illuminate it.
The room was filled with half a dozen tables haphazardly placed against the walls. Here and there people were sitting together. Some more visible, others shrouded in darkness. Only a handful looked up at us, their faces haggard, their regard indifferent. They soon returned to their drinks and conversations.
The barkeeper was a sturdy man. When we reached the bar, he finished pouring another patron a beer.
Before we could even ask for a drink, he squinted at us and gave us a quick once-over.
“You boys sure you want to spend the night at a place like this?” he asked in a thick, local dialect.
“Now that we’re here, we might as well have a drink,” Steve said. I shrugged and nodded in agreement.
“Make it two beers then,” Steve said, grinning at the barkeeper.
The man nodded, but his face didn’t light up at all and he still regarded us with visible disdain.
Once we’d gotten our beer, Steve and I found ourselves an empty table and set down.
“Man, this place’s shady,” I pressed out in an inaudible voice. For a moment I couldn’t help but look over my shoulder to make sure no one else had heard me.
“Hey, it’s not so bad! At least we got beer.”
With that, Steve raised his glass for a cheer. I halfheartedly toasted with him before I took another look around.
“Can’t say I like the place. Let’s finish our beer and get out of here.”
Steve shrugged and took a big sip of his beer.
After a few more minutes, a patron on the next table turned to us.
“You young gentlemen don’t seem too fond of this place here. The Boar might not look like much, but I assure you, this place has quite the history.”
I said nothing. The man’s voice was sleazy, and his overly friendly expression didn’t feel real at all. It felt like nothing but a facade to me.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to-“
“What’s so interesting about the place?” Steve cut me off.
Now the man’s face changed to a sly grin. I watched as he picked up his beer mug and got up from his seat. He almost stumbled to our table in a hunched over way. The black suit he was wearing and the goatee that accentuated his face made him appear more than comical.
“Well, my friend, this place is old, very old. One could say it has always been around in one way or another. But let’s not be rude, my name’s Curt.”
Steve and I introduced ourselves as well.
“You want to know more about the Boar’s history then?” he asked once more, turning towards Steve.
When he nodded vehemently to answer the question, I couldn’t help but roll my eyes.
The place had never been popular, Curt began. Even worse, the cliental was always of a special sort. As I looked around the room once more, I knew what he was talking about. There was a time, though, Curt said, when the place was notorious. As the stories go, the tavern was 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 grin on his face, “came to bet.”
Steve looked up. “To bet?”
“You could say, my friend, this place was also a gambling den. Instead of trading your belongings, you could also stake them in a game. Some won, others,” and at that he leaned forward, closer towards Steve, “lost everything.”
“Lost everything?” I asked Curt, but the man only continued to smile at me. Then, after a while, he talked again.
“Well, there’s the story of farmer Heinrich. A rich man, prone to certain habits. You could say he liked the bottle a little more than his wife. Of caused trouble at home and drove him right here to this very place. Then, one night, in another drunk stupor, he lost everything. His money, his livestock, and even the farm. Of course, Heinrich was also an arrogant man. When the last gamble was done, he didn’t want to pay and tried to leave. And that was that.”
“That was what? What happened to him?” Steve asked.
Curt’s smile changed to a toothy grin.
“He was never seen or heard of again.”
I chuckled. This had to be an urban legend. This guy, Curt, was trying to give us a little scare. Too bad it hadn’t worked. By now, though, my beer was empty.
“Well, that’s it. Come on, Steve, we got to go-“
“No way, Paul, let’s stay for at least another beer!”
With that, he held up his empty beer mug and put on a jokingly sad expression.
“All right, fine. Guess I go get the second round then?”
Steve game me a nod before he turned back to Curt.
“So about that story,” I heard Steve start.
I cursed as I made my way to the bar. For a moment I looked over my shoulder and saw how far Curt leaned over the table. He was pushing almost his entire upper body into Steve’s direction. What a weird guy, I thought to myself.
“Hey there, could we get another pair of beers?”
The barkeeper looked from me over to our table and frowned.
“You shouldn’t talk to that fellow.”
“Curt? Yeah, he’s weird, isn’t he?”
“I’ll say it again, keep your distance from him. I’ll bring over your beer in a minute.”
As I made my way back my eyes focused on Curt again. The way he sat there, the way he crooked his back if the guy straightened he had to be two meters tall.
As I sat down, Steve’s head jerked to me.
“The barkeeper brings it over soon. What did I miss?”
I looked over at Curt, who’d taken out a pack of Skat cards. As he shuffled the deck, I saw how old and worn the cars were. The white of the cars had taken on a dark yellow stain and the edges were rounded up and dirty.
“You in, Paul, right? It’s Skat!”
When Curt’s eyes focused on me, I couldn’t help but be crept out. There was an unsettling, almost malignant glow in his eyes. For a moment his smile seemed to grow even further as he waited for my answer.
“Nah, I’m good. I haven’t played in years and don’t even remember the rules,” I finally answered, shaking my head.
“Oh, come on! Why are you always so lame! It’s just a game!”
“Indeed, nothing but a game,” Curt agreed, grinning at me.
It was at this point that the barkeeper arrived with our beer. He put the two mugs down before he put a heavy hand on Curt’s shoulder.
“Why don’t you go back to your table, Curt? I don’t think these boys would be interested in your games. And you,” he turned to me and Steve, “you better get out of here.”
“Oh, but Wolfram, this young man here agreed to play,” Curt said beaming and pointed at Steve.
The barkeeper’s eyes rested on Steve for a long moment, before he turned away and made his way back to the counter.
As I sat there, I thought I’d missed something about that encounter, something important.
“Need one more?” a man from another table called out.
“Oh, indeed, we do! Join us, friend, join us!” a still beaming Curt called out.
Soon after, the man joined as at our table, placing himself on a chair between me and Steve. When I looked at him, I felt the same strange feeling. Something was wrong here. This guy was grinning too, but that was all I could say about him. The rest of his face was almost entirely empty. There was no defining feature to him, nothing at all.
“I assume you know the rules?” Curt asked, turning to Steve.
“Played a few times, so I guess I’m good,” Steve answered upbeat.
“Guess that will have to do. First to reach two hundred points wins. First to reach negative two hundred loses. Whichever happens first.”
Now Skat is a complicated game. If you don’t know the rules, you’re bound to lose.
As I watched though, I realized that Steve hadn’t only played a few times. He had a solid grasp of the game and was quite good at it.
Steve won his first hand and started with a solid lead.
“Well what do you know,” Curt said, laughing a little as he gathered up the cards and shuffled them for the next round.
From how hollow his laugh was and how he squinted his eyes, I could tell that Curt wasn’t happy at all about his loss. As the second round started, I could tell that the man was now much more serious.
It was almost as if luck had turned on Steve. His hand was even better than during the first round, but this time he lost and with it all his initial points.
As I sat there and watched round after round, it seemed almost as if Curt was cheating. Whenever Steve played a hand, the man seemed to have exactly what he needed to counter it.
Curt, on the other hand, won his hands with ease. They seemed almost too good to be beaten.
The newcomer didn’t do much and acted more like a third wheel. During the entire game he didn’t play a single hand, and most of the time he played in an absent-minded manner.
The game was finished in only half an hour and it was Steve who’d lost. The moment the last round was over, Curt announced the result of the game in a bellowing voice.
Steve scowled at Curt for making such an enormous deal out of it, and I could see his face turn angry. What Steve didn’t notice was how everyone in the entire place had turned into our direction. I felt watched, no, almost cornered.
“Hey, Steve, I think we,” I started but Steve didn’t listen to me, instead he spoke up to Curt again.
“How d’you do it?” Steve asked. “There’s no way this was skill or luck.”
“What are you trying to say, friend? You lost fair and square.”
Steve didn’t even bother to answer Curt. Instead, he got up and turned to me.
“Let’s go, Paul, no reason to stay any longer.”
As I was about to get up, Curt’s face still focused on Steve, showed a sly smile.
“Not so fast, friend. There’s one rule above all else in the Boar. Each game here’s a gamble. You lose, you’ve got to pay.”
“We said nothing about gambling,” Steve started. “I don’t give a shit about your rules. I won’t pay a damn thing, especially since you-“
“But you agreed to play a game, which means you agreed to the rules.”
“Okay, fuck this, we’re out of here,” I said and got up.
The situation had changed, and I didn’t like where this was going at all. I didn’t feel safe anymore, and all I wanted was to get out of this place.
“I wouldn’t think of leaving just yet. The Boar is indeed a very thirsty place,” Curt said from behind us. There was now a hard edge to his voice, and all the jolly nature from before was gone.
We’d barely taken the first step when the other patrons got up and positioned themselves between us and the door. Their faces seemed to comprise nothing but glowing eyes and wide grins. Steve next to me stopped, and we both shared an anxious glare before we turned back to Curt.
“How much do you want?” Steve asked and took out his wallet.
“Oh, you misunderstood,” Curt started laughing and finally got up.
This time he straightened his back. As he did, I gasped and instinctively took a step back. I’d know the man had to be tall, but he was almost gigantic. What little light the old, stained lamp had provided grew even darker.
The smile on Curt’s face was now nothing but malignant. His eyes were almost bulging and had changed to a darker, reddish tone.
“Money’s got no value here. No, you must pay with something else.”
“Then what the hell do you want?” Steve shrieked in a loud, scared voice.
“Shouldn’t have joined his game, boy,” the barkeeper said, shaking his head. “Nothing I can do now.”
I watched as Curt’s grin grew wide and wider, almost dividing his face.
Curt’s entire body seemed to grow taller. His head almost pushed against the ceiling above us. His eyes had turned into bulging red orbs and his hands opened and closed in anticipation. Steve turned, was about to run, but two of the other patrons restrained him.
“Hey what the hell are you doing?” I screamed, but I was restrained as well, my screams drowned out by a hand closing over my mouth.
In front of me, I saw how the abomination that had once been a man named Curt, opened his giant, wide mouth.
“It’s your soul I want.”
With that, his hands shot forward and closed around Steve’s shoulders. The two men who’d held Steve in place backed away.
I tried to move, tried to free myself, but the more I struggled, the harder they held me down.
Steve started screaming for me, but there was nothing I could do. I could only watch as Curt’s monstrous head jerked forward, and he brought his face right in front of Steve’s.
Then Curt’s eyes changed to a mesmerizing, iridescent glow. Steve’s screams and his struggling died down. His muscles went limp, his mouth fell open and his expression grew empty. Then his skin sagged, melted before he withered away.
After only ten seconds, it was all over. Steve was nothing more than an empty, withered husk that was held up by two monstrous hands. As Steve’s remains hit the ground, the wallet he’d been holding crashed to the floor next to him.
For a moment I stared at the wallet, then at what had once been my best friend. My brain didn’t comprehend what had happened. Reality itself had become a thing of impossibility, had warped into insanity itself.
By that point, Curt had already returned to his human form. He was smiling again and turned to me.
“Now then, friend, would you be interested in a game as well?” he asked in the same sleazy voice as before.
It was at this point that I could shake off the two men still holding on to me. In sheer and utter terror I pushed myself through the many ominous figures in the room and out towards the front door. Only moments later I was outside, running through the dark of the night.
When I woke up, it was morning and I found myself in my car. I didn’t understand how I’d even made it back there. I remembered bits and pieces of my desperate run through the forest, but it all felt distant and surreal.
Then I remembered Steve and jerked up, but I was all alone in the car. Moments later I was out on the tiny resting place and called out for him, but I got no answer.
I didn’t know what had happened last night. There was no way the things I remembered could’ve been real. Maybe they’d drugged our beer, or hell, maybe it all been nothing but a vivid dream. Who knows, maybe we went back and slept in the car. If so, where was Steve?
When I couldn’t find him after hours of searching, I made my way back into the forest. As I followed the path, I called out his name again and again, but there was still no answer.
Eventually, I arrived at the old signpost. From there, I continued on the same path as the night before.
It wasn’t long before I arrived at the old tavern, or better what remained of it. Instead of the building I’d seen last night, all I found was a ruin. Only bits and pieces of the ground floor remained, but I recognized the same metal boar had I’d seen last night. Only now it was old and rusted.
“There’s no way,” I mumbled to myself.
As if in a trance, I stepped forward. There was no front door anymore. The inside of the place comprised nothing but overgrown rubble.
Then I saw something between the grass and the small bushes.
It was a skeleton.
The last fibers of old rotten clothes still clung to the bones. Then I noticed a dirty, old leather purse right beside it.
With shaking hands, I picked it up. And as I scanned the contents, there was no doubt anymore about what had taken place at The Thirsty Boar.
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