Death’s Collector: Sword Hand

Book 5 of the Death’s Collector Novels

A killer with doubts. A ruinous war.

A couple of stupid decisions.

When the great war of empires comes, Bib the sorcerer doesn’t expect to throw in with a bunch of horrid peasants. In fact, he hates the idea and would gladly trade them for a sock full of sand. But this war has caught him in a transitional period.

Although he’s killed scads of people, Bib has never thought of himself as evil. Now his friends tell him to wake up and smell the evil coffee, and the whole idea vexes him.

Saving helpless villagers sure sounds like something a good person would do, so Bib decides to give it a shot. But with two armies slaughtering thousands of people all over the countryside, how not-evil is he prepared to be?

If you enjoy ferocious swordplay, one-of-a-kind magic systems, and sarcasm that cuts like glass, you’ll love Bill McCurry’s dark, irreverent tale.

Get Death’s Collector – Sword Hand today to do the right thing and save some aggravating villagers!

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“Sorcerers will fight over questionable knowledge and petty prerogatives, just the way bears fight over territory.”

     – Bib the sorcerer

Sample from Chapter 1


I keep count of the people I’ve murdered to remind me how much I have stolen from the world.

I try to kill only people who deserve death, because they’re cruel, or they threaten me, or because I think they should be dead. I enjoy killing them, which is of course a thing to be detested afterward.

That part about my victims deserving death is crap, of course. I yearn to take their lives, and that is the fact. A better person than me would laugh at my sophisticated excuses. That’s fine. My sophistry may be the only thing keeping that better person alive.

I considered all that one morning on my way to assassinate somebody. The irony unsettled me, and the assassination did too. I had committed to this killing, but I still hadn’t been told the target’s name or even his description.

Reaching my unknown victim meant crossing the northern frontier, which was as hot as perdition even in the early morning. The heat was one reason only poor people lived there. They were grim folks, and I felt glum riding across their land. I was inclined to bitch and kick things.

I nearly failed to spot the small village squatting out in the middle of nothing. Far behind me, my young companions certainly had not yet seen the little place. Earlier that morning, they had required me to ride ahead, far ahead of them, as they had wearied of all the bitching and kicking.

Stan, who was my older, degenerate companion, shaded his eyes against the glare. Then he whispered curses for a few seconds, which made him look like a disgruntled chicken. He said in an offended whine, “Look at them crumbly, awful piles of mud bricks. Same mealy yellow as everything else for the past thousand rat-gagging miles.”

That was an awful exaggeration, but I didn’t want to point it out. Stan complained hard enough to make a statue’s ears bleed. I said, “I don’t disagree with your sentiment, but we’d be foolish to pass them by.”

Stan pushed back his hat. I still wasn’t accustomed to seeing him without a helmet, but when he gave up soldiering to join us, he had bought a wide-brimmed purple hat with a crown like a beehive. “Hunkered down over there all untidy . . . that nasty fart of a place looks like a parcel of turds dropped by some great, shitting plains monster.” He swallowed, and his skinny neck looked like somebody was shoving their fist through a sock.

I didn’t react to Stan’s groaning and vulgar gestures. I had heard and seen them often. “Stan, maybe they have something to trade. Food, or supplies.” I nodded toward a big field of millet this side of town. Farther away, a sizable pen held brown goats.

“I hate goat. It’s greasy as a whore’s . . .” Stan glanced toward our young friends, Pil and Desh, still a quarter mile behind us. Lately, Stan had begun holding back some of his saltiest comments, even though none of us cared if he swore hard enough to shatter marble.

“If not goat, then what about beer?” I asked.

“Probably sour.” He raised a hand. “I know, sour beer’s better than no beer, and it’s dead sure better than water, which would kill us.”

I asked, “Are Pil and Desh following along?”

Stan turned in the saddle. “Yeah, they’re coming, but they’re making an ass-smacking holiday of it. Listen, Lord Bib, if you would stop acting like a red-rimmed horse’s ass, maybe we wouldn’t desert you.”

“Stop calling me that. Do you mean you’re leaving too?”

Stan kept looking away toward Pil and Desh, but I saw his neck blushing.

I could have spent ten minutes making Stan stutter and sweat by glorifying the depth of his undeclared love for Pil. However, that sort of behavior was why my companions had told me to eat mud while they struck off without me tomorrow. Instead, I scrutinized the village as we rode toward it. The millet field looked odd. It had a crop but no farmers. “Stan, do you know of any farmer in the history of the world who didn’t start work before the sun was up?”

Stan squinted at the furrows and grunted a curse. Then he loosened his sword in the scabbard as he scanned around us. “What awful kick in the nuts is waiting for us now?”

Due to my contrary nature, the more frustrated Stan got, the happier I felt. “Maybe these people are having a holiday and they’ll give us presents!”

“Shut up, Lord Bib.”

We crossed the field and dismounted at the closest brick house. I led my horse down a deserted lane with Stan following, and we soon reached a big, open area. I wouldn’t have called it a proper town square as much as an irregular dirty space where they forgot to build anything.

The area was full of people who were busy. Well, six of the people were busy robbing the rest. Everybody, including the bandits, wore undyed, woolen clothes smudged with yellow dirt, and the criminals each held a sword or a club. Two of them were mounted on puny nags, I guess to supervise the robbery, while the others shoved through the sullen crowd. One robber, a skinny young fellow, was stuffing live chickens into a sack. A short bandit tripped and let some loaves of bread roll out of his bag. He jumped up and recaptured them.

Stan had walked up beside me. “This is a crappy celebration,” he muttered. “No presents for us, I guess.”

A couple of victims saw us and edged away, silent but with eyes stretched wide. They all appeared thin and hollow-cheeked, especially the kids. That told me who was wicked and needed to be killed in this situation. I started breathing faster, but I felt light and loose.

“Stay back and let me do this,” I told Stan, who grunted. If it came to a fight, I didn’t want Stan killing any of the ones I might want to kill myself.

To be accurate, I both wanted and needed to kill them. I had years before bargained with the God of Death for something precious. In return, I owed him a certain number of murders before he released me, and only he knew what that number was. Once my killings had reached two hundred, I assumed that the final number was too big to ever reach in a lifetime, but the God of Death wouldn’t let me stop.

That was another reason to keep count of my killings, although I didn’t talk about it. If somebody pressed me hard on whether I kept count, I often added them to the count. In other cases, I might say that I did the killing but let Death do the bookkeeping. That was just smart-ass talk about murder. It was a good way not to think about the sad people from whom I had stolen my victims.

I drew my sword to slaughter these wicked, thieving bastards, but I hesitated. The robbers deserved death for making children go hungry, or even starve. They likely had done other cruel things every day for years. But I didn’t see any villagers with knives sticking out of their chests, so I clenched my teeth and forced a deep breath. With my sword hand shaking, I strolled into the square and waved.

Everybody quieted down except for the chickens in the sack. One of the mounted robbers, a long-haired fellow, said, “Who are you, old man?”

I smiled. “I’ll excuse that comment on my age, since I do look older than my years. I am Baron Barger, of the Yellow Valley Bargers.”

Behind me, Stan howled, “Beware the Bargers!” like somebody’s idea of a ghost.

“I don’t need a chorus,” I muttered toward Stan, who shrugged and spit on the yellow dirt. I pointed around the square and yelled, “We Bargers have owned these lands going back for a hundred years, and now I’m out surveying our holdings. You, with the swords and clubs, if you’re robbing this place, just go away and I’ll forget I saw you doing it.” I pointed my sword toward the ground and started sketching figure eights in the air with it.

The two horsemen whispered together for a bit. The second one, a bald man, shouted, “Just what exactly are you saying?”

I almost ran out and started killing men, but I gritted my teeth instead. I could give them another chance before the slaughter commenced. Stepping farther into the square, I bellowed in a seagoing voice, “Go home! Leave! This place belongs to me! Go get your own shitty little town! And drop that food before you go!”

Before I finished yelling, almost every person in the clearing was running in different directions. I saw three men bash into one another, fall, and get stepped on.

The horsemen and their thugs didn’t run. That surprised me. They couldn’t know how dangerous I might be, and their only gain from killing me would be chickens, bread, and whatever else these poor people owned. It seemed an unwise risk. However, both horsemen raised their weapons. The nearest one urged his nag toward me at a trot, although the mounted man behind him hesitated. The four thieves on the ground were hidden in the mass of trampling feet and jerking bodies.

These thieves had chosen to attack me, so I felt extra justified in killing them. The shaggy man’s gaunt pony picked up speed. He had long arms and a longer sword, giving him an immense reach. When he swung at my head, I guided the blade aside, stepped in, grabbed his wrist, and dragged him close enough to pierce his neck with my sword.

I could almost taste his death, as sweet as an apricot. I felt a little sick about it.

The other horseman was middle-aged and bald. He stared at his friend’s spraying neck and dragged on the reins, making his horse whinny and sidestep. Then he raised his sword and kicked his horse, trying to kill me and run away at the same time. I later wished I had let him run, but that seemed contrary to the situation at the time.

The bald man swung at me from too far off. I leaned away from the blow and thrust back into his chest. He was a persistent fellow, because he swung at me again. This time, I severed his arm above the elbow. He opened his mouth to scream, but only a squeak came out, probably because of the chest wound. Then he seemed to forget all about me as he peered around at the dirt, trying to locate his sword, or maybe his arm, from horseback.

He would be easy to finish, but I turned away. It wouldn’t be any harder to kill him in a minute or two, and he had allies someplace in the square.

At least thirty people still charged around in the open space, some of them shouting nonsense. I spotted three of the bandits out there, so I strode toward the two closest villains.

These were young, good-looking men with strong chins, alike enough to be brothers. Well, if they wanted long lives, their family business should have been tailoring or baking instead of banditry. Both waved stout, knobby clubs at me as they stood side by side.

I raised the sword that Desh had enchanted for me, lunged, and thrust it into Tall Chin’s throat with a snap. It happened before he could move.

As Tall Chin staggered, I darted aside to put him between Short Chin and me. Short Chin checked his swing, and I snaked around to hamstring him. On the return stroke, I cut halfway through the back of his neck. Short Chin dropped like a bucket of rocks. Tall Chin gurgled and fell on top of him.

I caught a breath. This was a pitiful little fight, but my heart was tapping fast.

The third bandit in the square was the skinny man still carrying a sack of live chickens. He had been charging to help the Chin brothers, but now he spun and sprinted to the closest hovel. He started kicking the wooden door while shouting to be let in.

I paced toward him, holding my bloody sword to the side. When Desh had enchanted that sword, he told me it wanted things to be dead. I wanted that too. But before I reached Skinny, the hovel door opened. He fell inside and the door slammed shut. I heard a bar drop on the other side.

My shoulders fell as if somebody had taken away my beer before I was done. Whoever lived in that house had perplexed me. People don’t often give sanctuary to folks who rob them.

I sighed, and my pulse faded as I scanned the square. The one-armed bald man had slid out of the saddle and landed on his side. The shaggy man lay underneath his old horse. The Chins lay dead together. No living person except me stood in that clearing.

I peered at the wooden door, wondering if somebody might throw Skinny back outside, but that didn’t happen. I never expect thanks from anybody I help, but most of the time someone speaks to me at least.

The one-armed man had rolled onto his back by the time I reached him. I had planned to kill him after I dealt with the others, and I still wanted to. But now he was no more dangerous than a puppy. I judged that without serious magical help, he would die, and my judgment about death was pretty damn good, so maybe I should end his pain.

He died while I was dithering over the question.

I glanced around and saw my young companions on their horses at the edge of the square. Desh shouted, “No!” with his eyes wide above his round cheeks.

Pil jumped down from the saddle and drew her sword, flipping her black braid behind her shoulder. She ran to Desh and touched his calf with one hand while she scanned the area. “What? Is it that man? Is it Bib? What?”

Desh didn’t answer or move.

I said, “Hell, Desh, did you want to kill him? It’s unlike you, so I didn’t know. You can kill the next one.”

Desh dismounted, stumbled to one knee, and jumped up running toward me. He came at me so fast I stepped aside, but he skidded to kneel beside the body. Grabbing the dead man by the shoulder, he gazed up at me, his face blank. “Where’s his arm?”

I blinked at that question but pointed. “Back there a bit. I imagine that blood trail leads to it.”

Pil walked up behind Desh and lay a hand on his shoulder. “Desh, what in snake snot is going on? You’re being weird, and it’s making me nervous.”

Desh shrugged off her hand, shook his head, and knelt there stiff as a brick. “This is my father!”

“What?” I shouted. I knew that Desh hailed from the frontier, but I had never thought about it beyond that. I examined the corpse’s face. He and Desh favored one another, right down to the pudgy cheeks and balding skull. I dropped to my knees and pressed my palm against the old man’s forehead, hoping to find he hadn’t fully gone. However, I had killed him thoroughly.

With my hand still on the dead man, I said, “I’m sorry, Desh. I didn’t know he was your pa. I’d bring him back if I could.”

Pil had run down the blood trail for the severed limb and now gave it to Desh as she knelt beside him. “That’s right. Bib didn’t know, how could he know it was your father?”

Desh examined his father’s arm as if it were a new thing, and I guess it was since he had never seen it separated from his pa. “No, you couldn’t know, but . . .” He swallowed and shouted at me, “You know what? Other people besides Pa deserve to live too! Not everybody has to be killed!”

His words didn’t quite make sense to me, but I put that aside. “I’m sorry, Desh.” I almost said it again before I realized it was impossible to apologize a sufficient number of times for murdering somebody’s father.

Desh confirmed that by yelling, “I don’t care if you’re sorry, you pinch-butt bastard!”

After waiting to be sure he was done, I said, “I don’t mean offense by asking this, but why was your father robbing those poor, struggling farmers? It seems harsh.”

Desh gazed at the cloudless sky. “You don’t know a single damn thing about the frontier, do you? It’s a dry summer. Towns survive by raiding other places that may have a little more. He wouldn’t have hurt anybody who lived here, not in a thousand years.”

I considered that for a moment. “Why were they armed, shaking swords like they were trying to scare away bad spirits?”

“The raiders have to be armed to preserve the dignity of those they rob. Who could yield their food to an unarmed man and keep any self-respect?”

Of all the traditions I had encountered, this was far from the most ridiculous. I wouldn’t have predicted it, though.

Desh continued, “This little town will probably raid some other place before long.”

I stepped back. “Huh. It seems a chancy system to me.”

“No, it’s not.” Desh sat on his butt beside his father, holding the old man’s arm. “The food gets shared, no one is hurt, and the system balances itself.” He placed the arm beside his father’s stump and then cocked his head at it. He picked up the arm again and laid it on his pa’s chest. Then he shook his head and lifted the arm again, hesitating. “I don’t know what to do.”

Desh was a mighty sorcerer, maybe the most powerful in the world, but he seemed mystified. He shook his head and lay his father’s severed sword arm alongside the unwounded arm, but he didn’t let go of it. He stared and chewed his lip.

Pil put her arm around Desh’s shoulders. “I’ll help you out. There’s an answer, and we’ll find it.”

I raised my eyebrows at Stan, but he looked away.

Pil scowled at me. “So, I guess you just had to kill someone today, didn’t you?”

From what I had been able to see, I was protecting those people, and I had given the robbers plenty of chances to run. Even though I killed Desh’s pa, I couldn’t think of a thing I had done wrong.

Stan spoke up, “It’s a day, so why wouldn’t Bib wipe somebody out?”

I considered the matter for a few seconds and then felt sick. “I guess that’s right. I could have thrashed those sad fellows without hurting them too much, but I was looking for an excuse to kill them.”

I crossed my arms to keep my hands from shaking. That was foolish, since my companions were already familiar with my regular, post-murder regrets. I rubbed my face hard and then stared at the man I had stolen from Desh.

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