Death’s Baby Sister
Book 2 of the Death’s Collector Novels
A debt to the heavens. A mouthy teenaged trainee. A sorcerer-slaying cult that might be his fault.
Bib’s semi-retirement from killing for the gods isn’t going so well. So when he’s asked to help an angry twelve-year-old girl with out-of-control powers, he embarks on a quest hoping for some redemption. But as Bib takes his sassy young charge under his wing, a voyage to the temple almost ends in disaster after a deadly ambush.
With reports of other sorcerers going mad and the kid wreaking magical mayhem whenever she opens her mouth, Bib struggles to resist strangling the brat. And after the girl triggers a series of lethal attacks, Bib fears the only way out of this mess will be a return to his murderous ways…
Can the embattled anti-hero single-handedly take on the gods and stop the growing bloodshed?
Death’s Baby Sister is the second book in the witty-but-dark Death-Cursed Wizard fantasy series. If you like reluctant champions, twisted conflict, and plenty of sword-slashing action, then you’ll love Bill McCurry’s wild adventure.
“Why do the gods want us to suffer? I believe that eternity is pretty damn long. Bored gods need something to do.”
– Bib the sorcerer
Sample from Chapter 1
I needed to kill two men and a woman before dark, and love was distracting me. Years of murdering people had taught me that when it’s time to kill someone, never do some other thing first. Now I feared I might think about love in a moment better suited to slaughter, and then I would be killed myself.
To be honest, even beyond these fears and aggravations, I had found that love didn’t make me as happy as it had when I was young.
I traced the lazy scar down Ella’s back with my good hand, and she stopped shivering. A bit of light and even less heat twisted through the warped bedchamber window. For us, nakedness had become a kind of bravery. I felt ungrateful not to be happier, since a smart and handsome woman had just spent a frolicsome morning with me. I slid out of bed, examined both edges of my sword, and then picked up my trousers.
Shouts from some place down the hallway thumped against the carved and polished door. Shouting was such a familiar sound that I didn’t even glance up from my boots. Every noise in the house flew down the hall like it was a stone trumpet, and Dina, the housekeeper, had never hesitated to stand in the kitchen and call the gardener a bastard from all the way across the courtyard. Before I could reach for my shirt, Dina screamed from the hallway, “Stop right there! I’ll beat you till your ass bleeds!” Somebody heaved the door so hard it whipped open with a crack that left it quivering.
I snatched my sword from beside the bed before the door quit trembling. Ella rolled to her feet away from the door. Naked and collected, she pointed a long knife at somebody in the hallway.
A girl of maybe ten stumbled inside and fell hard on one knee without a squeak. She jumped up so fast she almost tripped on her scratchy skirt. Her hair was red like mine used to be, and it straggled down so that I could hardly see the fine new bruise around her eye. Somebody had wrapped a rope around her neck and dangled a lidded reed basket in front of her. A gooey stink oozed from the thing. She frowned at me and raised her eyebrows at Ella. Then she spotted the glass window and stared at it, her mouth hanging.
Neither rude entrances nor repugnant odors are mortal offenses, so even when I was a less discriminate killer, I would have let her live. Murdering children is distasteful in any light. She appeared harmless, though, and that concerned me. One of the best ways to kill a truly dangerous person is to appear harmless.
I pointed my sword at her face. “Child, sit down on the floor, right there, and don’t dawdle.” She squatted and sat without looking at me, and her hands shook as she grasped the basket.
By that time, a spare, scowling woman had followed the girl in and pointed at her. “This girl’s been hexed.”
I smiled with my mouth but not my eyes. “Why, thank you for that knowledge, Sal. Has anything else interesting happened while I was away? A goat born with five legs? Save anybody on their deathbed?I smiled with my mouth but not my eyes. “Why, thank you for that knowledge, Sal. Has anything else interesting happened while I was away? A goat born with five legs? Save anybody on their deathbed?
Sal, the local headwoman, figured herself to be a healer. She knew enough about healing not to kill her patients outright. She knew enough about brutality and blackmail to keep everybody in the village terrified. I saw her craggy brothers behind her in the hall.
Another woman, tall and young, shoved her way between the boys and even jostled Sal aside on the way in. Her brown hair marked her a mainlander. Something had twisted her left arm to an improbable angle, and her right cheekbone had been whacked until it was sunken. “Are you deaf? Hexed! You see it, witch!” Her voice could have been used to sound the charge for a regiment.
Sal added, “Since you’re the only witch around, Bib, you must have done it.”
“First of all, I have never been a witch. I can’t stand to cut open lizards and bunnies and pull out their guts. It’s a failing, and it’s held me back.”
“Bib, if you can’t improve things . . .” Ella kept her eyes on our visitors. She pushed some sleep-ratted blonde hair out of her face.
“I know, I should stop talking. I’ll do better.”
The loud young woman smirked at Ella. “Girl, don’t they have clothes where you come from?”
Ella, at least ten years older than this stranger, smirked back.
“I have no prejudice against witches, but as a sorcerer, I do tend to get sarcastic when mistaken for one.” I stepped to the right to get a better angle in case I’d need to stab Sal in the heart and cut her brothers’ throats. “Now, I’ll just point out that this is our own bedchamber, and we can be naked here if we goddamn well please. If you dislike it, you can go squat in the mud. I don’t recall ever meeting you or inviting you into any intimate part of my home. So, who the hell are you, young woman?”
Sal nodded at the shorter woman. “This is Ona, a nun from the mainland.”
Ona surged one step toward me and stopped when I raised my sword. She squinted at the blade for a second and then back at me. “Don’t lie to me, witch! You go around telling everybody all about your death magic and dragons and wars with the gods. Just you try to deny it.”
I confess that it tickled my vanity for the village folks to think I was the worldliest man ever to walk the islands, and I may have exaggerated a tale or two. I may have flat-out lied—it’s one of my failings. Now my vanity had come around to vex me. “Let’s set that question aside for now, Sister Ona. Tell me about this hex.” I pointed with my sword at Sal’s brothers. “Does it cause grown-up, rat-suck bastards to hit her in the face?”
Ella said, “The most expeditious cure might be killing them.”
Sal nudged the girl with her foot. “Show him.”
The girl didn’t move.
Ella lowered her knife and gave the little girl a crisp smile. “Young lady, what’s your name?”
The girl glared at Ella and sat straight. “Manon.”
It was a common name. On the islands, almost every mother who delivered a fatherless baby named it Manon, boy or girl. It saved time later on when kids were looking for somebody to torment, and when adults decided who would get favors and who would eat fish heads.
“You don’t have to be afraid, Manon,” I said, smiling over at Ona. “If anybody in here hurts you, I’ll gouge out her liver and give it to you for a present.”
Ella grabbed a long shirt from the bedpost and shrugged into it, and then she knelt beside Manon. “It’s all right, sweetheart. Why do they think you’re hexed?”
Manon flipped open the basket, and my stomach clenched at the stink. Ella shielded her face and backed away two steps. The basket held ten or twelve yellow spink, a fish twice as long as my hand. Some were busy rotting.
Sal crossed her arms and lifted her chin. I had seen her stand like that when she sentenced a thieving boy to carry a bucket of rocks every place he went for a year. “We make the girl do some fishing, since she’s hopeless for anything else. Three days back, she caught three fish in that one day, exactly three. Three.”
“I understand. Three fish,” I said.
“The next day again, three fish, and the next day, exactly three more. Today, she caught two, and Ona said bring her to you.”
“Eleven fish, then. Remarkable! Let’s burn her and have a party.”
“Look closer.” Sal nodded at the basket.
“You look and tell me about it.”
Sal sighed and reached into the basket, pulling out a human finger. “First fish had swallowed this. Second fish swallowed this.” She pulled out another finger. She kept pulling out fingers. “Ten fish, and they swallowed eight fingers and two thumbs. Looks that maybe they all belong to the same unlucky turd. Anything funny to say now, witch? Any jokes?”
Ona said, “You hexed the girl, so you take her.”
“You don’t want her un-hexed?”
Sal hissed. “She drops everything she touches, spills what she don’t drop. Maybe you hexed her at birth, who knows? She’s not worth the food it would take to choke her.”
Manon didn’t flinch. Maybe she heard that a lot. Hell, maybe her family said it to her every night for a bedtime story.
I said, “Sal, you said eleven fish, but I count ten. Your brothers doing math for you?”
Ona reached into the basket, pulled out a big toe, and held it three feet from my face. “Eleven. You clean up your own mess.”
The sad thing was that all this felt sick and familiar. “Manon, come here.” She scrambled up and faced me, glaring as if her eyes could obliterate me from the memory of man. I walked toward her, and she leaned away but didn’t run. “Before I say anything else, I want you to remember this. I apologize for maybe ruining the rest of your life.”
Her eyes widened, but she didn’t step back. That was perfect. I stared into her pupils. Something was moving deep in there. I turned her face toward the window and cocked my head. Then I spotted tiny shadows with different shapes and different numbers of legs and arms swimming in the inmost sounding of her eyes.
They all stopped at the same time and stared back out at me. That was fair. The same kinds of shadows lived in my eyes and were gazing at Manon.
“Ladies, I accept custody of this child, and I don’t promise a goddamn thing. As you have no more reason for loitering in my home, I give you leave to rush the hell off. And take along your dimwit chorus out there in the hall. Ella and I might wish to frolic again in a minute.”
Sal frowned, grumbled, and whipped out of the room to join her brothers. Ona smiled at me, awfully sweet and cheery except for the pull against her lips by her bad cheek. She nodded at Ella and strolled out behind Sal.
“Dina!” I called out, even though she was standing right outside the door. “Take care of your niece.”
Ella added, “Feed her, wash her, and find her clean clothes, in that order. And tell the gardener to bear this appalling basket away and bury it, or else fertilize something with it.”
I fell onto the bed and stared at the ceiling. Back when we’d moved into this house, I had planned to spend every afternoon sitting under the crabapple tree drinking wine. I realized that could get boring, and I planned to address that by occasionally drinking whiskey. Ella was ambitious, and I had no urge to distract her from establishing her fame by solving problems for wealthy men with a vengeful streak.
Manon was about to smash my relaxation like it was a yearning boy’s heart, and I deserved it. I anticipated the girl would engage in unintentional whimsy such as fires dying out when she walked past or finding a diamond buried in her breakfast every day for a week or causing every third child in the village to accidentally put an eye out with a spoon. Such things couldn’t go on forever, of course. Eventually, people would figure it out and kill her.
“Ella, you may not realize this, but I dislike admitting fault.”
“Once I have finished dressing, I shall faint from shock.” She pulled on her trousers.
I sat up. “I confess that I may have played just a tiny part in these events. I grieve to tell you that we are facing a fearsome creature. She’s slightly less dangerous than a volcano, and I’m only kidding you a tad. She’s a new sorcerer who doesn’t yet know it, and she might tear a hole in reality whenever she burps or slams her thumb in a drawer. She’s only suffering this due to the spread of sorcery, and . . .” I shrugged.
“You brought sorcery here? You promised me you wouldn’t.”
“We can’t know with sterling certainty that I did it.”
Ella threw my shirt at me. “You lied to me!”
“No, I just said something that wasn’t true. I thought it was true, though.”
“Sophistry. I’m sorry, your vocabulary may not be that extensive. Bullshit.” Ella hefted a boot, considered me for a moment, and then dropped it back onto the floor.
I twisted and stretched my left arm to thread my hook through the sleeve. “Sorcery should not be possible on this island. I was promised that.”
“Well . . . the God of Death.”
Ella stared at the yellow rug, her arms crossed. A lot of women have told me I’m too hard to live with, sometimes yelling it at me, and sometimes throwing crockery or shoes. In the ten months I’d been with Ella, she had from time to time crossed her arms and stood rooted no matter what I did. She had said that such behavior was just her deciding whether I’m too hard to live with, or maybe whether I should be allowed to live at all, so I should go off and leave her the hell alone while she did it.
Ella had a right to her aggravation, but it did sting. Although Harik, God of Death, was not the most trustworthy of beings, he and I had shared a colorful relationship. He had cursed me to commit an unspecified number of murders for him, a number only he knew. I called him fancy names, like rabbit-dicked mockery of a god. We tried to cheat each other like we were sweaty men haggling over a lame, one-eyed donkey. But when I bargained for his promise that Ir would be proof against sorcery, I had judged the bargain fair. I’d clearly been too stupid to swallow spit.
I felt nearly certain that the gods didn’t create us and all the world. They spent too much time complaining that creation didn’t contain enough sorcery for their liking. Most of the world had been free of sorcery for years, and the gods didn’t care for that, since they preyed on sorcerers like sparrows on grasshoppers.
About the time Ella and I fell in love, I struck a bargain with the gods. They could restore sorcery wherever my idle ass wandered, and it would remain when my ass had moved on. For me, it was a morally questionable task, sometimes sad and often violent. Without doubt, it was the best deal I’d ever made, considering what the gods gave me in return. But they had set me no schedule, so I rode wherever Ella wanted to go. I always found people there doing something nasty and waiting for me to kill them for it.
Shattering the veil between man and god had been more tiring than I had expected. Half a year of it exhausted us. Ella wanted to settle and take on some chancy tasks for rich men. I wanted to drink wine and ride horses, since my temperament was not suited to hard labor. Settling in Ir seemed perfect.
“Well, Harik cheated me,” I said. “I’m sorry.”
“We have to move now. I’m unprepared for more sorcery.”
“That’s an abrupt decision.”
Ella turned away from me and started shoving clothes into a leather backpack. “Don’t argue. Your judgment is no better than a chipmunk’s. Go off and kill your malefactors and take the girl with you. You created her. I shall pack up our chattels. Dina! Assemble the staff outside!” She marched down the hallway and left me sitting on the bed.
My malefactors were three wicked thugs I had promised to kill on behalf of a slightly less horrible thug. I had regretted my promise right away. I should have paid the man what I owed him in fish or plum preserves or even silver. But I had made the bargain, and there it was—breaking bargains was not one of my failings.
I finished dressing and followed Ella into the courtyard.
Dina was cajoling the household staff into a twitchy, ragged line. I didn’t know just when we had acquired a staff. I’d never expected to have one, and I didn’t really know what to do with it. Ella found housekeeping and such unappealing. In fact, she’d rather drink scorpion blood than mend shirts, or sit on a couch and order servants around, so she had handed our entire domestic operation over to Dina. After that, Ella only talked about it once more, when Dina asked permission to hire her sister as a helper.
Dina must have considered that such approval extended to bringing on whatever help she felt was required. Now and then, a maid, a gardener, or maybe a fellow whose job was just to carry things around would appear. I wasn’t sure how imposing our staff had become. I had counted at least twelve distinct individuals, including a couple of children, all with Dina’s prominent, dimpled chin.
I wasn’t worried about the money. We could pay the whole village for a hundred years if we wanted. It just itched my devotion to proper planning. When I brought it up to Ella, she laughed, kissed me, and kept on sharpening her knife.
Seventeen servants lined up outside, and none of them stood within twenty feet of Manon. She was exiled almost to the flower bed, where she fidgeted, shook, and stared damnation at her family.
As I walked toward the girl, something crashed behind me. I jumped, and everybody else did too, including Manon. One of the big wooden shingles had slid off the high roof and by chance landed on one of the chickens from our flock, which pecked the courtyard cobblestones all day. The shingle killed it on the spot.
The event told me two things. Somebody who was not me would be fixing the roof tomorrow, and I knew what Ella would be having for dinner.
Dina’s daughter, Drendl, skipped over to collect the chicken. Just as she arrived, another shingle fell five feet away from her and broke another unlucky chicken’s neck. Drendl yelped and ran back to her mother without a chicken.
Ella walked up beside me. “I wonder what the odds may be of that occurring twice?”
I sighed. “Do you want to wager against it happening again in about ten seconds?”
“What do you mean?”
I held up my hand. Soon, another shingle shot off the roof, executing another chicken. The staff had been murmuring. Now they chattered, exclaimed, and even swore a little, despite Ella’s disapproval of harsh language.
“Would you like to bet again? I’ll wager a kiss,” I said.
“If you can make it stop, I’ll wager more than a kiss.”
I glanced to check on the servants, a normally fearful group. Most were edging toward the courtyard gate and the trail that led home. I pointed at Manon with my hook. “Ella, go hang on to Manon if you would, please. I don’t want her to escape when everybody else goes crazy and gallops out of here.”
I had begun counting the time between shingles. One fell every twenty-three seconds. After the seventh execution, even chickens were smart enough to run away. A wind rose and blew the next few shingles far out into the courtyard to slay more chickens. By the nineteenth shingle, the wind had become a gale. Shingles hurtled across the courtyard at twenty-three-second intervals, and two of the last chicken-murders were accomplished by shingles on the bounce.
When the slaughter ended, twenty-three shingles had flown off the roof, destroying a total of twenty-three chickens.
The gale collapsed into a nice breeze within a minute. Ella appeared at my shoulder, holding Manon’s hand. She raised her eyebrows at me and then glanced toward the girl.
“All I can say is you shouldn’t stand under this roof at this hour tomorrow. Or for the next twenty-two days.”
“Bib, I think it best that Manon and I both accompany you to your murders rather than stay here.”
I nodded and smiled at Manon. “Do you want to come on a little trip with us?”
Manon squinted at me and rubbed her nose, her hand shaking like a tree branch in a thunderstorm. “I dreamed about killing you, old man. Or, maybe you . . . no, I’m pretty sure it was me killing you.”