Book 4 of the Death’s Collector Novels
It’s just a little bit of treason.
The petty, vicious gods demand that Bib the sorcerer lure his friend, the young king, into a losing war. Bib thinks he’s clever enough to arrange things so that the king is defeated yet keeps his throne – and his head.
But the king won’t listen until Bib crushes some traitors for him. Faced with rebellious nobles, mystical killers, and allies he can’t control, Bib finds that cleverness needs a sword and some vicious magic to back it up. Because if he fails, the gods have torture, death, and even destruction beyond death waiting for him. They may even point and laugh.
Struggling across a landscape of brutal armies, immortal vengeance, and a highly aggravated ex-lover, Bib does what he does best: mock the pretentious, take no crap, and murder people who almost certainly deserve it.
Death’s Collector: Void-Walker is the fourth novel in the darkly irreverent Death-Cursed Wizard series, which follows Bib the lethal sorcerer as he strives against cruel villains, bad sorcerers, petty gods, and his inner demons – which, like a fool, he feeds regularly.
“These are abstruse mysteries. Let me order my mind and separate the facts, manifest from subtle. Then we can get drunk and make shit up.”
– Bib the sorcerer
Sample from Chapter 1
A visit to the whorehouse would be better than splashing blood all over the dirt. I told myself that as I glanced at the glob of spit on my boot. The guard smirked at me and wiped his chin, careless of the four unprotected places I could ram my sword into his body before he shifted his feet.
Instead of murdering the man right that second, I grabbed the back of my belt with my sword hand. I was trying to uncomplicate my life, and killing a king’s man is always a complicated business.
From behind me, Pil said, “I told you to go to the brothel and let me announce you.”
I grunted but didn’t come right out and agree that she was smarter than me.
The guard’s eyes crinkled in his round, red face. “What would this ancient bastard do with a whore? I bet he’s as limp as a cow’s tit.”
The man’s three companions laughed, leaning on their spears behind him.
I let go of my belt. “That may be, son. But I’ve copulated so much with a limp willy I could row a boat with a rope. And satisfied women who wouldn’t touch you if you were made of gold and candy.”
Red Face squinted. I might have overwhelmed his vocabulary.
I sighed at myself. Comments like that were unlikely to simplify my life. The castle courtyard behind the guard was thrumming with busy people, and some would notice if I stabbed this man through the neck. I shuffled half a step back from him and the gate.
“Let’s walk back down the hill, Bib,” Pil said. She often spoke so quickly she sounded flustered, but she was as steady as bricks. “If you’re just too good for the brothel, then we can go to the tavern, or the stable, or the blacksmith, and you could buy the king some nails and send them up as a gift tomorrow, with a note. A note that asks whether he’s happy you didn’t kill his stupidest, ugliest guard. Let’s do that.”
The guard flinched like he’d been hit. In the weeks Pil had traveled with me, I had concluded that her beauty was one of her less significant qualities, but she was still likely the prettiest girl in the city. It had to hurt the guard to hear words like that from her. But he straightened up and pointed his spear at me. “Get on out of here, you clump of dog shit! And take your bitch with you!”
I had been shoving down the urge to kill this bastard. Now that he had pointed his weapon at me, my urge bloomed into a hearty craving for his life. I called back to Pil, “Who is this surly pissant to threaten me, anyway? What gives him leave to insult my friends? And spit on my damn boot?”
I didn’t add, How dare he block my way when I have come to betray his king?
It didn’t seem that such betrayal would uncomplicate my life, but I owed debts to more important beings than kings. And I couldn’t betray the king while standing out on this dusty road. I stepped forward, angling to walk around the guard’s spear, my hand on my sword.
The guard shifted his feet, but before he moved, Pil raised both arms and called out, “Wait! He’s bringing His Majesty a message from the Rocky Lizard People of the North, and I’m guarding it—and him. The old fart may die any minute, just look at him! I mean, I had to carry him halfway here. Don’t delay letting him see the king.”
Red Face squinted at Pil as she babbled her lies, and I walked all the way around him. I ached to draw my sword and thrust it through his back and into his heart, but I forced my hand to be still. Then he spun and whipped out the butt of his spear to knock me off my feet. He executed the move with a hell of a lot of skill too, more skill than I expected. He almost caught me before I leaped away.
I drew my sword, and Red Face jumped back before thrusting his spear at me. I rushed him, knocked his weapon aside, and sliced his arm from shoulder to elbow. He dropped the spear and staggered away, cursing and clutching his bicep.
The other three guards had been laughing at me, the feeble old idiot. Now they pointed their spears at my chest and shuffled their feet as if they might lunge any second.
“Stop! Just stop it!” Pil bellowed, her hands in the air again as she stepped forward far enough for me to see her. She exuded enough confidence to stop everybody. She glanced at me and then stared at the now-motionless, wide-eyed guards. “Bib, make your kills clean this time. Don’t maim them so that they take a month to die.” She gave the guards a pointed look. “All right, go ahead.”
The guards paused, I suppose to assess that new information. I bounded over and yanked one’s spear out of the way with my free hand. I kicked its owner hard on the knee, and he stumbled as he shouted something bad about my sister. I pushed him toward his two comrades, who stepped high to get out of the man’s path.
Half a dozen more guards were now sprinting from various parts of the courtyard. Some held spears, and two had drawn swords. One of the guards near me thrust his spear so hard that when I stepped aside, he slipped. I sliced his skin across the skull and forehead. He fell to his knees, howling, and his unwounded friend backed away toward the middle of the courtyard.
I should have killed all those guards, but I hesitated to slay the king’s men right there in his own courtyard. After all, he was my friend. And despite Pil’s bloodthirsty comments, I knew she’d be pleased if neither of us ever killed again.
To hell with that. I laughed at the guard backing away, at the one bleeding on the dirt near me, at the ones charging me, and at all their rat-snot, pissant friends inside this castle. Part of me knew I couldn’t kill them all, but that knowledge was weak and pale.
The man I had pushed into his friends recovered and thrust low to cripple my leg. I sidestepped and stabbed him in the throat with a snap before whipping around to face the others.
Red Face, holding his mangled arm, shouted, “Shit-mouth bastard! Throw down that sword!”
His words couldn’t strictly be considered a threat, but he might try to attack me again. Not today, but someday. I lunged and put six inches of my blade through his heart. When I withdrew, he stared at the wound in his chest, trying to pull open his shirt with his one good hand. Then he collapsed straight down like a load of loose sticks.
“Wait! Stop!” A skinny guard charged toward me from an outbuilding in the courtyard, waving his arms. “Wait, dammit! Stop! All of you, just wait!”
Everybody stopped and waited. Most people, even some soldiers, don’t really want to kill another person, and they welcome a reason not to.
The man charged over as if he were fighting a fire. His whiny shout went up half an octave. “Stop it! Damn your dicks for dog turds!”
Now standing beside me, Pil muttered, “Do you know this crazy chicken man?”
I didn’t look at her because I did know the man, and he did look like a chicken with his long, scrawny neck and sharp face. He arrived and jumped between the other guards and me. I said, “Hello, Stan.”
Panting a little, Stan adjusted his helmet and poked a greasy lock of yellow hair back under it. “Gods damn it to my mother’s twat, Bib, for the first time I’m glad to be stuck here as a stinking guard instead of out soldiering and crushing the king’s foes. All these tit-suckers here would have got themselves killed fighting you, and I’d have to do all the guarding work alone.”
A towering, bristly guard lowered his sword and stepped close to Stan. “Corporal, what in perdition is this? Who’s this man? Tell him to surrender.”
Stan turned to Bristle Face and waved his hands as he spoke. “Dammit, Sergeant, this is Bib! You know, Bib? Hell, I forgot, seven in ten of you weasel-dicks are new and don’t know shit from a pork pie.”
The sergeant puffed up. “Hold on, Corporal—”
Stan cut him off. “You goat-shaggers have just come as close to death as you’ve ever likely been, and you probably won’t thank me for saving your asses, nor even buy me a drink, will you? Bib’s the most dangerous man in the world.”
Pil raised a skeptical eyebrow at me.
The guards all scrutinized me. None of them looked convinced.
Stan went on, warming to his audience. “First off, he’s a sorcerer, and even amongst them, he’s a nightmare. Just as deadly as a hundred wolves pissing fire. He slaughtered a thousand men and women in two minutes using horrible magic that would drive you or me insane if we heard even a word of it. It’s true! I was told it by a pure woman who was there, and who’s never told one single lie in her blessed life. And with my own eyes I saw him charm a water fairy, and her as naked as your nose. Beautiful too.”
Some interested murmuring rose from the guards who had crowded around.
Stan was walking back and forth in front of his listeners, gesturing with gusto as he spoke. “He got both . . . I am not shitting . . . both his hands sliced right off, and he’s grown ’em back again! And he killed that bucket of pus and doorknobs, Vintan Reth, who was the cruelest, smartest, most villainous vomit chunk of a sorcerer who ever lived. But Bib killed him deader than your daddy’s dong. If I hadn’t looked out here to see what the shouting was for, every one of you waddling bastards would be bleeding to death on this dirt right now!”
The guards grumbled and peered at me.
“Well, you’re welcome!” Stan shouted. “Bib, I mean, Lord Bib, where do you want to go? I’ll take you there as safe as babies so you don’t have to dirty up your sword on any more of these boobs.”
Stan escorted us past the guards, who didn’t seem inclined to test me now.
At the keep itself, one of the main door guards remembered me from the year before. He smiled and winked at me, and I walked straight inside with Pil. I hoped I wouldn’t have to kill him when it came time for betrayal.
“Thank you, Stan.” The man had journeyed to the southlands and back with me almost two years ago, and I slapped him on the shoulder. “I’ll find you later and buy you some drinks. So, you’d rather be a soldier than a guard?”
“I’d rather be an ass stain than a guard.”
“All right, I’ll fix it with the king.”
Stan beamed, showing all the appalling teeth he had left. “Damn nice to see a friend. Figured you might be dead by now, like most everybody else from the old days.”
“The old days were two years ago,” I said.
“Happy to see you ain’t forgot them.” Stan trotted back toward the courtyard.
After Stan rounded the corner, Pil said, “I like your friend.”
Pil glanced at the ceiling and sighed. “No, really. He’s brave. He didn’t have to run out in the middle of that fight, or what had been a fight and what might have become a fight again soon. And he seems honest.”
This time I snorted.
Pil touched my arm. “Fine, maybe he got some details wrong—I wasn’t there for all that—but I bet he told it exactly the way he understood it to be true, and that’s more honesty than you find in most of us.”
“Sure, he’s a diamond in a world of horse turds. Please let me think now.”
“If you haven’t thought before now, I predict failure.”
I saw her scowl before she looked away. It was a furious look, and I wondered when she’d get tired of following me around while I got us into trouble. A young sorcerer like Pil could sure as hell could find better things to do with her life.
During the short walk to His Majesty’s study, I reviewed my plans. I had agreed to force war upon Glass, a war with great armies, and then make sure the kingdom lost. The God of Death required that of me. The prospect had shriveled me some when I made the deal, but it had been the best bargain I could get to save a lot of people who were innocent to varying degrees. Most importantly, it saved me.
Also, I had to fight in that war, far out in front of the army.
I had puzzled on this problem for several weeks, searching for a way to pay my debt to the gods without causing real harm to the kingdom, or the king. During my long ride south, I had stopped at the neighboring Kingdom of Eastgate, and I came up with a subtle scheme to solve everybody’s problems.
Of course, I had never started a war before. Looking back now, maybe I shouldn’t have tried to be quite so subtle.
“I never expected to meet a king,” Pil said as we tramped down a hallway through Castle Glass. “Now I’m going to meet my second one.”
“They’re not so special. I never met a one who could whistle worth a damn.”
A guard stood beside the closed door to the king’s study. As I approached, the door was flung open with a crack and a blonde woman in her mid-thirties stamped out into the hallway. She noticed me, lurched to a stop, and stared.
“Ella?” I almost ran over and kissed her before I stopped myself. Such familiarity might have been unwelcome, considering the firm tone she had used when saying she didn’t love me anymore.
Ella ran to me, though. Her hair straggled across her wide, blue eyes. Her cheeks were hollow, her lips were pale, and she was painfully beautiful. I held out my arms. She grabbed my shirt front with both hands, pulled me against her, and lay her head on my shoulder.
I embraced her, and we stood that way for a short while. At least it was short enough that nobody made any uncomfortable remarks. I didn’t speak a word. I couldn’t think of anything to say that would make things better than this.
At last, Ella pushed me back a couple of feet and looked down. I had a wisp of a notion that she was about to apologize to me for something. Instead, she stomped on my instep before wrenching away from me.
“Fingit stab it in the ass with fire!” I yelled, hopping on one foot.
“Where have you been?” Ella’s eyes had gone deep blue and predatory. “You told me you would come, and I needed you. Pres refuses to help me. Desh has disappeared and is perhaps dead or abducted. Where were you, Bib?” She glared at Pil. “Off whoring with her?”
“Pil, this is Ella,” I said, trying to smile.
Pil cocked her head at Ella for a moment before wrinkling her nose the way she might when playing with a child.
Ella ignored that and jumped at me. I winced, but she just grabbed me by the shirt front again. This time, she tried to shake me. “You should have been with us, but instead you galloped away on sabbatical, weeping about what a cruel killer you are.”
I thought Ella was being pretty damn harsh, but her eyes were shiny with tears. “I’m sorry, Ella, but I didn’t exactly promise to come . . .” I stopped when she glared at me. Then she looked down again.
“Something’s wrong,” she whispered.
I leaned my head close to hers and murmured, “What is it?”
“I don’t know!” Ella shouted, flecks of spit flying. “I’d do something if I knew!” She lowered her voice to a whisper. “The king has become unpredictable and . . . harsh. We suffer bandits and angry nobles. And Desh has disappeared. I fear someone has taken him.”
I couldn’t help smiling, since Desh was a crafty sorcerer. “If somebody kidnapped Desh, you should feel sorry for them. When he escapes, none of them may survive.”
Ella hauled off as if she might hit me, but she lay her palm on my chest instead.
“What about Limnad?” I asked. Limnad was a water spirit, and the last I knew, she was Desh’s lover. If he had broken her heart, then she might have torn him to bits. She might have done it anyway if she didn’t like something he said.
Ella stepped back and rubbed at her sallow cheek. “That crass, grasping trollop disappeared when Desh came to the city.”
That made sense. A wild spirit creature like Limnad couldn’t bear places where men built in straight lines, stone on stone. She wouldn’t have been able to stay with Desh, no matter how much she loved him.
A tall, honey-haired boy of thirteen poked his head out through the study doorway. “If you’re going to fight, either kill each other in the courtyard, or entertain me with it in here.”
I bowed. “Your Majesty, I have some horrible news. There’s war between Eastgate and your kingdom. They’re marching right now, or at least soon. I heard the order given.”
The king sagged. “You’re right, that’s pretty bad.” Then he glared at me. “So, why were you there listening to orders being given?”
I set my jaw and tried to look noble. “That old fart, King Ert, summoned me to perform some shady task for him. Of course, I turned him down and came straight here to warn you.”
Pres narrowed his eyes and examined me. Every one of my friends had looked at me that way at some point, as if they knew I was lying. My wife had done it too, and both my little girls. I glanced over at Ella, and she was staring at me that same way.
I almost choked out the truth, but of course that would be crazy.
“It was awfully darn lucky you were there, I suppose,” Pres said. He still didn’t look as if he believed me. “Not that I hate seeing you, Bib, but you came at an awful time. Well, come on in and join us. Then I’ll decide what to do about you and your overheard orders.”