“From Tusk Til Dawn”

Originally submitted to a couple of magazines but rejected, then posted to Patreon for September 2015. Now here for your reading pleasure.

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The locals’ heads popped up and stared at the tall orc woman in flannel and faded denim who’d just pushed through the bat-wing doors and sauntered in. She grinned, taking in her surroundings, pleased at the sight of poker tables and plentiful drink. Smoke and alcohol perfumed every inch of the saloon and probably the hotel rooms upstairs to boot. She made straight for the bar, and after a minute, the locals went back to their conversations and drinks and games.

Whiskey,” she told the bartender, a young human man.

Ya want a glass or a bottle?” he asked amicably.

Mm, how much for the bottle?”

Well, gots a few. Cheap stuff is 25 pennies, an’ then we gots a few bottles for a bilt or two. Whatcha have, miss?”

Gimme a bottle of the cheap, long as it ain’t piss water. Unless you wanna share a bottle of the nicer stuff, mister…?” Bulgahk winked at the young man. He laughed quickly and bashfully, his pale face turning red. She thought he was absolutely adorable. The elf girl working the other end giggled at them.

Ah, D-Da-My name’s Danny. And no, no, miss uh-”

Bulgahk,” she said with a smile.

Miss Bulgahk. Can’t be drinkin’ while I’m workin’.” Another nervous titter escaped him as he handed her the cheap bottle and she brushed her fingers against his.

Maybe after work then. Bring your friend too,” Bulgahk said, nodding towards the dark-skinned elf girl. She gasped and blushed visibly, her cheeks and tips of her pointed ears gaining a ruddy hue. Bulgahk grinned at them both before setting down a fistful of pennies and taking her bottle.

T-t-thank you, miss B-b-bulgahk.” Danny was stuttering hard from surprise still.

As Bulgahk walked off, Danny and the bar girl’s eyes still on her, she swayed her hips suggestively. She heard the girl giggle and tease Danny. She popped the cork and took a swig. It was cheap alright but it burned nicely. She looked around to find a poker game to join. There were only a few tables with games going. One was dice, with a simple penny pot. Pure luck provided the dice weren’t rigged. She couldn’t tell what the other table was but it didn’t matter. She saw a group of three men playing with cards over a table covered in green felt. She took another swig of her bottle as she approached, pulling out a chair to join the men. Two humans, one quite tan, one not so much, and a pale elf with graying hair who was clearly a career gambler.

Afternoon, gents,” she said as she adjusted her seat. “Deal me in. Been a while since I had a good game of poker.”

Hope ya like to lose,” the gambler replied completely sure of himself. He stared at the newcomer intensely

We’ll see,” Bulgahk said with a grin. She met the man’s eyes and nodded. Apparently, he wasn’t use to that. She gave an inward laugh of satisfaction as his face dropped. This would be fun.

An hour and ten silver bilts later, she remembered why it’d been so long since she’d last played. “Cards,” she thought to herself. “Why the hell did this always happen with cards?”

She knew the answer, of course. It was always the same. When luck started favoring her, one man at the table would inevitably accuse her of cheating. She still hadn’t figured out what it was about her that always made sore losers even sorer. Sometimes she wondered if it was the old prejudices that still popped up from time to time. Other times she wondered if she just looked that untrustworthy.

Thus far, the discussion had remained at the table, merely heated. She was waiting though. It was about to boil over. Each expression of innocence, each attempt to show her sleeves-sleeves that had been folded up to begin with-just fueled the man’s anger.

Yer a cheatin’ piece o’ troll shit,” the elf roared as he jumped to his feet. “Troll shit” came out in a long drawl even with his anger.

There it was though. The room froze. The old gambler stared down at her, gray eyes seething, looking a little bloodshot. The other two players silently removed themselves from the table. The smell of cigar smoke and whiskey that had perfumed the air since she’d arrived even managed to pull away from confrontation. The foul-tempered old gambler shook visibly, all but growling at Bulgahk.

Smoothly, she stood up. Pale blue eyes studied the gambler. She lifted her arms once again, frustrated and annoyed, to give him a clear view of her bare forearms. He glanced at the moss-colored flesh. A moment later, he was trying to stare daggers through her again.

Yer a cheater and a liar, orc,” he drawled. “I don’t know how ya did it, but ain’t no troll-shit goblin-scum smart enough to best me at a card table.”

Bulgahk rolled her eyes. She wondered if they all shared the same brain. Liar, cheater, goblin, saying orc like it was supposed to be a slap in the face. In the heat of summer, they’d accuse her of using her tits to win if she had her shirt open some. Usually, it was old human men but occasionally, an elf or a dwarf would step up. Salt-and-pepper-haired professional gamblers with egos as fragile as an egg under boot. Never a halfling though.

I ain’t no cheater and I ain’t no liar. You seen my arms. You seen my hands. You seen my cards. What say we have a drink instead of a fight?” She held up the whiskey. “My treat.” She knew what the answer would be. The same gods-damned brain. All of them.

What say ya die, ya ogre-fuckin’ piece o’ trash. What say we duel.” The elf was not arguing now, he was commanding.

If it’s all the same, mister, I’d rather just have a drink. I ain’t afraid to kill but I prefer to keep from it if I can help it. Just cause yer ego’s hurtin’ don’t mean we gotta throw down.” She held out the bottle again. A moment later, it crashed into the wall. She’d barely seen his arm move.

Don’t ya dare fuckin’ shit on me like that. Ya cheated and it’s time ya pay the consequences!”

Bulgahk looked off towards the bottle. The neck had broke off and spilled most of the contents onto the floorboards. “Pick yer time. Pick yer place. Ya wanna be a rotten ol’ cuss, fine, but even cheap whiskey don’t deserve waste like that.”

Dusk. Cemetery behind the alchemist’s lab across the way.”

Bulgahk cocked her head at the request. It certainly ranked up with some of the weirder duel stipulations she’d had. She shrugged and sighed. “Fine, dusk. I suppose I’ll need to dig my own grave too, tough guy?”

As if ya deserve a proper burial. Personally, I’m hopin’ ya turn to a ghoul so I can kill ya twice.”

Well ain’t you just a romantic,” Bulgahk quipped with a snort. The gambler growled at her. “Yeah, yeah, save it for later.” She walked off, dismissing the old elf outright, returning to the bar for the time being. Danny and the elf girl were staring at her. “What?”

A duel?!” Danny asked in shock. “You could…”

You could die,” the elf girl finished.

Y-yeah, what Jilla said.”

Gods damn, you two are adorable,” Bulgahk replied. “Don’t worry so much. If I die, I die. If I kill him, well, it ain’t ideal but it ain’t gonna be the first time neither.”

Jilla looked on in surprise. “You’ve done this before?”

I don’t know why it happens but it does. Folks like him get their balls all twisted in a bunch cause I beat ’em at cards. One thing leads to another, as ya saw, and then we’re slappin’ iron.” Bulgahk shrugged. “And shit, him saying dusk isn’t even that strange for me. Once fought a man by the name of ‘Mad Dog’ Tanner who insisted we fight after dawn cause he ‘did his killin’ before breakfast.’”

Miss,” Jilla started, “please, just take your winnin’s and go. It’s not worth dyin’ over.”

That’s sweet of ya but I ain’t worried ’bout it. Here, let’s get a nice bottle and share it. If it’s my day, I’d rather spend it how I want to spend it.” She pulled out a silver bilt and plinked it onto the bar top, following it up with a wink and a smile at Jilla and Danny. They both sighed at her but Danny pulled a new bottle of whiskey out.

As dusk began to roll in, Bulgahk made her way up the hill to the alchemy lab, a simple, “L” shaped building with a steeple. It was covered in a faded white paint that looked like it hadn’t been retouched in years. She turned around for a moment, looking down on the small town. She liked the view.

She made her way around the building and wandered into the graveyard. The old gambler was waiting on her, arms crossed, and a scowl burned into his face. A gun belt sat evenly on his hips, the holster sitting just left of center on his waist. An impatient finger tapped against the pistol butt.

‘Bout time ya got here, ya dirty fuckin’ cheat,” he spat.

Bulgahk sighed. “Yer still sore, I see. I was hopin’ maybe we could still call this off and just go on our separate ways.”

We’ll go our separate ways, alright. You’ll go down, I’ll go back to mah table. Course, if ya’d just admit, in front a e’ryone that yer a lyin’, shit-suckin’ cheat, I’ll let ya live.” The gambler smiled meanly.

I ain’t no cheat and I ain’t no liar,” Bulgahk said calmly. “’Sides, even if ya kill me here, ya still lost plain and fair. Ain’t no shame in it. We all gotta lose sometimes.”

Suck a troll cock,” the gambler said with a sneer. “I don’t lose to nobody.”

Whatever helps ya sleep at night, old man. Let’s get this over with.” Bulgahk undid the tie holding her revolver in its holster. The gambler did the same and stepped back farther into the graveyard. A long row of tombstones stood at attention, their only audience while the sun sank into the west. Tree limbs swayed gently in the evening breeze as the shadows began to grow longer and stronger, little by little.

The pair watched each other for long moments, still and sure. Bulgahk took in a slow, deep breath, eyes locked onto the gambler’s hand. She felt her guts begin to knot up as her skin rippled with bumps. A vein of terror began to crawl up her spine. She’d never felt that before in any other duel. He smirked at her, like he knew what she felt. “Maybe I will die tonight,” she thought. “Bastard’s still getting a fight.”

Bulgahk heard the shot. She’d been looking at his hand and then suddenly the gun barked. She hadn’t seen him draw. Not even a young elf could move that swiftly. The bullet ripped across the top of her shoulder, somehow only grazing her. She let out a grunt of pain as she drew her own piece. She was never the fastest gun but she could aim truer than anyone she’d ever met. Her own gun barked and the bullet went straight to the gambler’s heart.

He looked at her, surprise replacing the scowl that had been so etched in his face up to then. Blood trickled from the hole. The gambler’s body hit the dirt with a soft thud. Bulgahk sighed and holstered her pistol, a shudder escaping her. Her heart pounded in her throat and that ice in her back remained. She touched the top of her shoulder and grunted again as she touched the wound. It was a little worse than the graze she thought originally, having taken a small chunk of flesh with it but she’d survive another day. Bulgahk turned, ready to leave. The last vestiges of sunlight faded into velvet silence.

That all ya got, ya filthy, goblin trash?” a voice called out.

Bulgahk looked back. The gambler rose to his feet. He didn’t climb to them. He didn’t spring up or rise elegantly like some elves did. He just rose, flat off his back and straight up to his feet again, completely unnaturally. The ice in her spine spread, filling her every inch of her body. She started as he pointed his gun at her once more. His face was different now, hard and predatory, raised in sharp lines around his eyes, which were faintly glowing red.

The gambler cocked the hammer, shattering the silence with four mechanical clicks. Bulgahk tensed, her senses still dull from shock. The barrel lowered.

Actually, I think I’ll do this my own way now,” he said, holstering his gun.

What the f-” Bulgahk started to say before the old elf vanished from her sight. Hideous silence engulfed her.

Lookin’ for me,” he drawled in her ear.

Bulgahk swung on instinct but her fist only met air. The gambler appeared in front of her again, mocking her with cruel laughter.

I gotta hand it to ya, that was a good shot. I’da never guessed ya was that true. If I was still among the living, that’d have been my end for sure. More ‘n’ that though, I cannot fathom how ya ignored my influence when ya sat yerself down at the table. I told ya, I don’t lose.”

What are you?” Bulgahk whispered. Her eyes were huge, locked with the glowing red orbs. They made her want to fall to her knees and sob like a baby.

I’da thought the eyes gave it away by now but my kind tend to, if ya pardon, stick to the shadows.” He rolled his hand up with a flourish and pointed at his mouth. A toothy smile revealed sharp, glistening fangs.

Vuh…vuh…” Bulgahk stammered.

Vampire, yes, ya imbecilic bag of blood.” He absently licked a tooth.

Bulgahk’s mind reeled but she grit her teeth, staring at the monster.

I can hear it, ya know.”

Hear what?” Bulgahk ventured, taking a half-step back.

Yer heart. I hear it beatin’ like yer a scared li’l rabbit. I smell the fear rollin’ off ya in waves. Tonight, yer dinner for a wolf.”

Bulgahk blinked. Just a split moment, less than a heartbeat, and the gambler was right in front of her. She yelled out, drawing her revolver as quickly as her practiced hands would allow, fanning the hammer. The other five bullets were loosed from their confines and found new homes in the gambler’s chest. He rocked slightly with each shot. She looked up into the vampire’s face. A wolf’s smile spread across his face.

Still got some fight left in ya. Good,” he growled, slapping her gun to the ground. His mouth spread open, baring his fangs, and the breath of the grave wafted from the monster’s gullet.

No!” Bulgahk screamed as he neared. For the third time, she surprised the vampire as she slammed her head into his nose. She began to throw a flurry of punches, her body screaming out for survival. A cold hand grabbed her throat and squeezed like iron. Her eyes went wide as she felt fingertips dig into her neck, sharp nails piercing her flesh.

Keep fightin’, Rabbit, it’ll make ya taste that much sweeter,” he growled. The vampire hurled her out of the graveyard with barely a shrug.

Bulgahk flew through the air and landed on a sapling that split under her with a loud snap. Her head swam as she lay dazed, trying to regain her senses. He was on her once again before she could pull herself back together.

Is that it, li’l Rabbit? Is that all the fight ya got?” The wolf’s smile never left his face. “You’ve been a real fun meal but I’m gettin’ hungry and Momma always said not to play with my food. Then again, I drained her dry, so why quibble over details?” He began to laugh but it was cut short. Bulgahk had jammed a handful of the broken sapling’s twigs into the back of his throat.

She was amazed to see the vampire roll off of her in a fit, tendrils of smoke curling out of his mouth. She’d shot him and hit him with every ounce strength in her considerably powerful body only for a handful of sticks to wound him? The confusion didn’t last though. She stumbled to her feet and began to run, her legs pumping, moving of their own accord. A part of her wondered why no one had responded to their duel yet but the thought was silenced.

Behind her, a hideous roar of pain echoed through the town. Another scream followed it a moment later as Bulgahk got to the bridge at the edge of town, this time a single word: “RABBIT!!” She kept running. She’d run until she knew he wasn’t chasing her anymore.

Whatever she’d done to get free didn’t matter now. Claws raked her back. She tensed in surprise and pain, blood flowing freely from the wounds. She stumbled and tripped, her hands and knees hitting the worn wood at the center of the bridge. Bulgahk braced herself, waiting for the vampire to slam into her, to sink his teeth into her neck, for the inevitable, violent death she would suffer. But it never came.

She dared a look back, utterly sure that he was toying with her, letting her think she was free again. He stood there, snarling and growling and swiping at her but remained planted firmly where he was. He was tense, trembling slightly, like he was pushing against an unseen wall. Bulgahk didn’t care what it was-twigs or the bridge or some sort of divine intervention-she scrambled to her feet and started to run again, back into the forest that sat outside the town.

The vampire let out another roar. “I’VE TASTED YOUR BLOOD, RABBIT! I’LL FIND YOU! YOU’RE MINE!”

Tears streamed from her eyes as she ran. The sound of howling caught her ears. Moments later, she saw the source barreling down the road at her. Wolves, huge and hungry, eyes glowing faintly. Bulgahk turned and ran into the trees, spotting a massive, old oak tree a little ways off the road. The wolves came snapping at her heels just as she got up into the branches. She kicked one of them in the snout and climbed higher. She hugged the trunk and watched the wolves circle below, occasionally leaping at her, snapping and growling. Her body shook as she sobbed. Every muscle in her ached and burned. It was the longest night of her life.

Bulgahk had fallen asleep hugging the tree. By dawn the wolves had disappeared back into the depths of the forest. When she was sure they were gone, she climbed back down and collapsed up against the oak’s gnarled roots, passing into a dreamless sleep. Around noon, she awoke, still sore and exhausted, but calmer. The fear in her spine had melted away with the sun.

As Bulgahk leaned against the old tree, she thought about the last thing she’d heard as she ran away. He’d said he would find her again and she believed him. She had no reason not to. She stood and began to pace, gathering her thoughts and attempting to work some of the stiffness out of her legs.

What did she know about vampires? For sure, he knew what she’d seen with her own eyes last night. He’d shrugged off six bullets, shown his true face, and he’d tossed her away like a doll. She wondered about some of the other things though. He’d said to fight at dusk. Was he strongest then? The twigs she’d jammed in his mouth had either been something he was weak to or else she’d just gotten incredibly lucky.

Maybe they can’t stand plants in their mouths,” she mumbled to herself. It made some sort of sense. They were blood-drinkers after all.

Then there was the bridge. Something about it had held him back but she didn’t know what. The wood? The small river underneath? She remembered hearing once that blessed waters could hurt them but she doubted the water was magical in any way. What about the wolves? She was fairly certain they’d been his. So now what?

A memory bubbled in her mind. Wooden stakes through the…the what? She focused on the memory. The head? The stomach? The heart! It was the heart! She looked up at the branches of the oak. She could carve a stake. She still had her boot knife. It wasn’t the sharpest but she could form a branch into a stake and kill that fucker and be done with it. The duel wasn’t over yet. One or both of them would be dead before sundown.

Bulgahk reached up and grabbed the branch above her head, feeling for a spot where it was thin enough she could snap it and thick enough it could still function as a weapon. The branch snapped cleanly. She sat, slipping the knife from her boot, and began to work. She grinned to herself as she carved the limb into form, realizing that the tree that had sheltered her would now be her weapon.

Suck on that, ya fuckin’ parasite,” she said with a laugh.

An hour or so later, she’d carved the branch into a finely-pointed stake and worn the knife blunt in the process. If she made it out of this whole ordeal alive, she would have it resharpened and buy one of them big-bladed ones that were so popular lately too.

She slid the stake into her butt-pocket and headed back into town, looking up at the sign, “Welcome to Swallow Creek.” She squared herself. Each step burned with purpose, the sunshine seeming to give her new power. She wasn’t dumb enough to start declaring that she would be some big damn hero but by the gods below and above, she’d take that bloodsucking piece of shit out if it was the last thing she ever did.

She had no desire to be subtle or give herself time to get afraid again. Bulgahk marched straight back into the saloon. Like the day before, the locals all looked up at her. This time, instead of bored curiosity or the vague distrust of a drifter, shock filled their eyes as they looked her over. The faded flannel shirt was ripped, with a singe mark where the bullet had grazed her shoulder. Her jeans were likewise scratched up. She was covered in dirt and bits of tree bark. The cheek she’d slept on while in the tree in particular was a smudge of brown.

Bulgahk spotted the gambler, his back towards her, playing cards with the same two men as before. She didn’t yell, she didn’t run. Her eyes narrowed and she simply marched towards him like a horse with blinders. Everyone in the place remained silent. The two men noticed her, their mouths falling open. The gambler looked back at her. He sneered at first but then he smiled. He stood. All eyes were on them.

Mighty nice of ya to save me the trouble o’ findin’ ya,” he mocked. “I had started to wonder if my…friends had gotten a li’l overzealous when they found ya.”

Bulgahk locked on the gambler’s eyes, no longer twin suns of wrath and hunger. He looked like he belonged here, aside from what she now recognized as his obvious pallor. She knew better though.

What’s the matter, Rabbit?” he drawled. “You were so chatty yesterday. No matter, I guess I can kill you with an audience now.” The vampire gave another mocking laugh. Then Bulgahk gave him another surprise.

She roared as she threw the hardest punch she’d ever thrown. Orcs tended to be tougher than even dwarves but the blow still hurt her. Fire filled her hand. She didn’t care. The gambler crumpled onto the poker table, taking it down with him. She pulled the stake out and made her final move, driving it down towards his heart. He caught her hand. Every eye was locked onto the pair, frozen from the sheer shock of seeing the massive woman attacking and then being held at bay.

Bulgahk pushed with her off-hand, trying to use her size to her advantage. She could feel that he was weaker right now but she didn’t know how much. Sweat poured off her and she grunted with effort. The stake began to lower.

No!” the vampire shouted. “Ya weakling! Ya can’t kill me! I’ll drain your carcass and feed your bones to the wolves!”

Fuck you!” Bulgahk shouted and let her body drop down onto the vampire’s. Her momentum and one final push broke through the creature’s unnatural strength. The stake plunged through his chest and into the black heart that lay within.

He screamed with even more fury and pain than when she’d shoved the twigs into his gaping maw. Blood gushed from every orifice, bubbling up in thick, dark spurts from his mouth. Bulgahk scrambled to her feet but never looked away. She watched as he seemed to be deflating, shriveling with each new convulsion.

You look at me as you die, Wolf,” she commanded. Hateful eyes locked onto her eyes. She noticed her gun tucked in his belt. “I believe this belongs to me.” She retrieved her weapon and loaded one shell into the chamber before aiming at the beast’s head.

I’ll survive,” he hissed. “I’ll-” Brown liquid splashed onto his face and into his mouth.

Bulgahk looked up. Jilla was pouring a bottle of whiskey over the vampire, two puncture wounds visible on her neck.

What are you doing?!” he demanded, his voice tinny and shrill now. “Stop it! I command you! Stop them, ya fools!”

Jilla’s reply was crystal clear. She tossed the bottle aside, drawing and striking several matches from their box. They sparked to life. The vampire looked up at her, terror showing clear even on his evil face. The matches dropped, igniting the alcohol, engulfing the blood-soaked body and drawing another hellish scream from the vampire’s throat. The flames seemed to feed on the creature, growing bigger than they had any right to. A moment later, they snuffed out, leaving a pile of ashes in the shape of a body. Jilla spit on the ashes and cursed in Elvish.

Bulgahk stumbled back and slumped down into a chair, the gun clattering to the floor. She looked at the ashes for a long time, everyone remaining silent, watching her, waiting to see what would happen next. Tears streaked down her cheek, salty and hot. A laugh caught in her throat and then escaped into breathless giggles.

W-what the f-f-fuck was that? What t-the fuck’s so f-funny?” Danny asked in shock after wandering over.

Bulgahk looked up at him, trying to contain her laughter. “Nothin’, Danny, nothin’. Just…” she snorted, “it’s just…who do I have to kill to get a drink around here?”