Are the Shields of Sularil too busy battling world-threatening archdemons to accept your job? No problem. The B-Team is ready and willing to exterminate corpse-eating plants, unmask mischief-eating hags, and source venom from stone-eating basilisks. No job is too small for the B-Team. But some are too big, and when they unwittingly stumble into the middle of a power struggle between vampires, they find more adventure than any of them desire. None of them really wants to be a hero, but that’s not up to them anymore.
Praise for the B-Team
“Unconventional, but they get to the job done.”
–Haniya Rix, Opal Spire Guard
“I never want to see any of the ever again.”
–Ronin Nar, Emerald Spire Chief Inspector
“They owe me a damn mansion.”
–Rosamund Steele, Secret Vampire
The five companions followed the river upstream and out of the Forest-Betwixt-the-Rivers. As they left, Alurel took one last look of longing at her people’s sacred land. For centuries, the Oruana Kir had come to the Forest-Betwixt to commune with its incredible diversity of wildlife before heading back to their herds on the wide open plains of southern Daen. The sovereign of Kelen had given the forest back to the elves and had been assassinated for it. The Kelenite coup had led to a bellicose new regime and a buildup of troops on the border. And now Alurel’s new team of adventurers was traveling that border between Kelen and Daen, two countries separated by a river and by centuries of racial animus. Alurel eyed Shonasir and Rhys. If an elf and a Kelenite human could get along, perhaps there was hope for their two peoples.
Over the next week, the companions moved steadily northward along the interminable roadway known as the Kelenday March. For days and days they saw nothing but fields and farms and endless vistas of gently rolling prairie. The mountains that bisected Sularil were a welcome sight, if for nothing else than that they broke up the monotony of a flat horizon, blue above and yellow-green below. The mountains rose in two great ranges to the east and west with a gap in between. As they approached the gap, Emric’s eyes kept straying to the west. His home country of Anvilcairn lay beneath the Western Mountains, though he had no desire to return – at least not without finding his friend Astrid or a treatment for his brother Lorn. For a moment, Emric heard the sound of the waterfall – rushing, roaring, surging – and he whipped around looking for it before realizing it was all in his head.
At the gap in the mountains, they passed a checkpoint manned by members of the Sularin Joint Force. Shonasir scowled at them the whole time, but the elf held their tongue and did not wonder aloud why the S.J.F. was stationed on the border between Daen and Arillon rather than the border between Daen and Kelen. It seemed the northern countries of the Sularin League had little stomach for the potential war that the illegal Kelenite regime was bringing to the elves’ doorstep. The S.J.F. made a show of stopping the Kelenite Rhys at the border, but he pointed to a tattoo on his forearm – a stylized “P” and “D” in a swirling pattern – and they let him through. Apparently being a member of a crime lord’s family paid off in unexpected ways.
For his part, Jeral did not relish returning to northern Sularil. He had fled many places in the last few years, most recently the civil war on Dragonclime that raged following the untimely death of the tyrant king Harringhorn. It was Jeral’s bad luck that he had been mistaken for a different green dragonborn while in Kelen and put in jail. He had protested that he didn’t know a Nadarr Kasdann, but it hadn’t mattered to the Kelenite authorities. One green dragonborn was as good as another to them. But perhaps it wasn’t bad luck in the end; after all, he wouldn’t’ve met Emric and Alurel if they hadn’t been thrown in the same cell together. Now if only he could bring himself to tell them the truth.
The five travelers entered the country of Arillon, one of three member states of the Sularin League north of the mountains, along with Sul and Torniel. Humans made up the vast majority of all three countries, owing to the fact that all three were peopled by the progeny of the same desperate immigrants from a far off land who arrived in the north over two thousand years ago. The history of the early human settlers who moved west from Torniel was murky at best, but most scholars agreed they had encountered the remnants of a dying civilization. Popular legend said they were giants. Indeed, their burial mounds were quite large.
The companions came upon such a burial mound in central Arillon at a town called the Crossroads, a descriptive if unimaginative name for the place where the Kelenday and Arillon Marches met. The Arillon March began at the Sea of Torn in Torniel and ended at the gates of the Overcity of Anvilcairn. The Kelenday March started in Kelentir to the south and ended at the jeweled city of Thousand Spires, their destination. The news out of the big city was strange and harrowing. Recently, a massive invasion force of orcs from Ornak had menaced the northern wall of Thousand Spires, but after a few days they left without a word. No one knew what to make of it, except to be thankful for their good fortune. Jeral has been especially attentive to this news, and his companions wondered at his sudden interest.
But their curiosity was driven from their minds two days later when the city itself came into view over the horizon. Tower upon glittering tower stretching thirty miles east to west rose into the sky. There were more people in the city of Thousand Spires alone than in any one country of the Sularin League save Kelen. The city held a cross-section of the peoples of Sularil: humans, elves, half-elves, dwarves, halflings – even the odd dragonborn or gnome, though the latter two came from countries outside the League.
Rhys had thought Kelentir was big, but it could have fit at least five times over inside Thousand Spires. The big Kelenite couldn’t keep himself from gawking at the diversity of people and craning his neck at the sky scraping buildings. And so it was a good thing that Shonasir, the eagle-eyed elf, noticed the young girl reaching for Rhys’s purse.
They had the pickpocket in hand before Rhys knew what was happening. The girl couldn’t have been more than eight or nine. She had light peach skin that shaded toward a hint of purple, betraying a half-elven heritage, and chestnut ringlets that framed her head like autumn foliage. She fought against Shonasir’s grip until Rhys bent down and held out a coin to her.
“Are you an orphan?” Rhys asked.
“Who wants to know?” The girl’s voice held an odd mix of surliness and wonder.
Rhys smiled at her and tucked the coin into her hands. “A member of a family of orphans. I’m Rhys Highridge. What’s your name?”
The girl relaxed against Shonasir’s arms, and the elf released her. “I’m Jazrin. Jazrin Jewel.”
Alurel knelt next to Rhys. “That’s a lovely name, Jazrin. I’m Alurel. I’m a half-elf like you. Where do you live?”
Jazrin reached out and touched Alurel’s pointed ear and then felt her own, which was adorned by a small iron earring. “I live at an orphanage in the Emerald Spire. I’m sorry I tried to steal from you. I don’t know what made me do it. I just…I just…”
“Do they make you steal?” Rhys prompted.
“No, no. The orphanage has a wealthy patron who pays for everything. It’s a nice place to live. Granny Esme always gives us treats after checkups. Mr. Hurstwile, the caretaker, has a pet ferret named Frown. Matron Hifra is a little strict, but she has to be to keep the boys in line. She lets us help her cook. She says she’s teaching us a trade. I know how to make pie crust and what spices are best in stew and how to chop vegetables.”
“It does sound nice,” Alurel said.
Jazrin grabbed Rhys and Alurel’s hands. “Come on, I’ll show you. I know I said it was a good place to live, but it would be better having parents. Come on!”
Jeral leaned down to Emric and whispered, “This is going to end with us adopting that little girl, isn’t it?”
“It’s looking that way,” the dwarf said.
Jazrin guided them east, out of the Trade Quarter and into the Emerald Spire. Many of the districts of the huge city were named for the particular jewels or gemstones that adorned the tops of their central public buildings. They could see the tower of the Emerald Spire in the distance as they entered the district of the same name. The emerald itself, which floated in midair above the building’s spire, must have been truly massive to be visible from a mile or more away. The hubbub of the Trade Quarter died away as the companions moved into the residential streets of the Emerald Spire.
As they walked deeper into the district, well-appointed multistory brownstones with small front gardens gave way to medium to large single-family homes surrounded by green space.
“The further east we go, the nicer the houses,” Jeral observed.
“The Diamond Spire borders the Emerald,” Shonasir said. “Most expensive real estate in the city. I’m guessing the residents of the eastern edge of the Emerald Spire wished they had a different address.” They gave an exasperated sigh, which sounded suspiciously like, “Humans.”
“I’m not allowed to go to the Diamond Spire,” Jazrin said. “Their spire guards would catch me too fast. Last week, Remy and Devrin said they made it all the way to the Eldasin Sea, but I think they were just boasting.”
“Are they friends of yours from the orphanage?” Alurel asked.
“Friends? Yuck, they’re boys.” Jazrin pulled a sour face, but then she smiled as she pointed to an old manor house, much larger than any of the surrounding homes. “We’re here.”
They passed through the wrought iron gates and walked along a path lined on both sides by strips of flower garden. Tulips of every color alternated with patches of yellow daffodils and orange tiger lilies. The only weeds in sight were the ones in the basket held by a human girl about Jazrin’s age, who knelt by the end of the path.
“Hi, Polly,” Jazrin said. “Almost done with chores?”
“Very nearly,” the girl said without looking up. She pulled a final weed and held it up for Jazrin’s inspection. “Yes!”
“These are my new friends.”
Polly looked them up and down and said to Rhys, “Why do you have so many swords?”
Rhys knelt again so his face was at the same height as the girl’s. “I use them to defend my friends. Don’t worry. I have no intention of drawing them here.”
Polly’s face screwed up into a look of confusion and panic, and she dumped the basket of weeds on Rhys’s head. Alurel and Jeral burst out laughing.
“I’m so sorry, Mister,” Polly said. “I don’t know what made me do that. I…I…”
Rhys shook the weeds from his locs and joined in the laughter. Polly and Jazrin began scooping the weeds back into the basket, and Rhys helped. There were orphans as young as them at Padraig Duna’s compound in Riversend. While Rhys wasn’t technically an orphan himself, he had a soft spot for them, given the makeup of Duna’s family.
“Polly,” came a stern voice from the manor’s doorway. “What are you doing disturbing guests like that?”
“Sorry, Matron Hifra.” Polly bobbed a bow to the new arrivals and scurried away.
The matron was a stout, round dwarf wearing a floury apron over a puffy-sleeved dress, the buttons of which strained against her neck. She approached the travelers with a smile that did not reach her eyes.
“What can I do for you?” Hifra asked.
Emric stepped forward and held out his hand. “It’s so good to meet another overlander out in the wide world. Are you from Anvilcairn?”
“Vrydun, in the north.” Hifra sniffed and allowed Emric to pump her fingers once before she pulled away. “Why have you come to the Emerald Orphanage?”
Rhys stood up and stepped behind Emric. “Jazrin here invited us to come see her home.” Rhys stroked the red sash he wore, a mark of his relationship with Duna’s family. “The people I represent take special interest in orphans. I am interested in how they are being cared for here in the city.”
As with the S.J.F. soldiers at the border, Matron Hifra caught Rhys’s veiled threat, and her smile grew wider, if a bit brittle. “Please, right this way.”
The matron gave them a tour of the grounds and the converted manor. On the entire property there wasn’t a blade of grass out of place or a hint of dust on a shelf. All the beds in the dormitory were made except the one nearest the window, which appeared to have scorch marks on the sheets and pillow.
They were descending the stairs towards the common area when they heard a crash and the sound of breaking glass. The matron hurried down, though never losing her dignified manner, and the companions followed her. A pair of boys stood over a broken vase. One held a stick. The other was pulling at his ear in panic.
“Remy Jewel, what is the meaning of this!” The matron whispered the words, but given her tone they might as well have been screeched.
“I’m sorry, Matron, it was an accident.”
“Spilling milk is an accident, young man. Swinging a stick inside is nothing but thoughtlessness. You and Devrin, go find Mr. Hurstwile and ask him to help you clean this up, and be mindful of the glass. Then come to the kitchen so we may continue this conversation.”
Both boys bowed their heads. “Yes, Matron.”
They backed out of the room, and Hifra turned to her guests. “Well, I never. I apologize for the behavior of my charges. We’ve been having a run of mischief lately, and I don’t know why. I suppose the children are simply growing up and starting to push the boundaries.”
“Children will do that,” Alurel agreed. She bent down and gathered up the flowers from the broken vase. But her finger brushed against a stray piece of glass, and crimson blossomed on her hand. “Sand and stars, I’ve cut myself.”
Alurel was about to cast a healing spell over her hand when a kind, elderly voice spoke from across the room. “Let Granny Esme take a look at that, child. I came as fast as I could when I heard the commotion, which isn’t too fast at all, I’m afraid.”
The old woman was piled so thickly with shawls that they couldn’t quite discern where her body was underneath them. She shuffled over to Alurel and wrapped her finger smartly with a bandage. “And here’s a sweet treat for such a sweet patient.”
She pressed a hard candy into Alurel’s other hand. “Now you be careful, you hear?”
Alurel pulled a flower out of the bunch and gave it to Granny Esme. “Thank you for your kindness.”
Granny turned to Hifra and gently chided her. “Don’t be too hard on those boys. An ounce of compassion is worth more than a pound of punishment.”
Hifra flashed her brittle smile again. “I’ll take that under advisement, Granny.” She looked up at Rhys. “I think that concludes our tour. I trust our friend to the south will find that all is well?”
“You certainly run a tight ship,” Rhys said as he let the matron guide him to the door. “Tell me, who pays for all of this?”
“Pelagius and Serafina Sindar are very generous. They are incapable of having children, and they say they are awaiting the perfect orphan to be theirs. As you can see, I strive for perfection.”
Rhys’s eyes strayed to Jazrin and Polly, who were playing a clapping game in the yard. “But they haven’t found the one yet?”
“Not yet, I’m afraid. They want a human girl, so that leaves out Jazrin. Polly comes with her twin brother Remy. We won’t split them up. And the others are either boys or not human. But I’m sure the right orphan will turn up eventually. Until then, I’m glad for the Sindars’ patronage.”
“What will happen to that patronage once they have their child?”
The matron’s smile faltered. “I hadn’t thought of that.”
“Thank you for the tour. I assure you my report will be glowing.”
Rhys led the way back up the walk and waved to Jazrin as they left. They found a small inn nearby called the Slipper and Gosling. As they awaited their drinks and supper, the five companions contemplated the orphanage.
“Did anyone else have a weird feeling in that place?” Alurel asked.
Emric nodded. “It was too clean.”
Jeral drummed his claws on the table. “I think you all are so used to finding problems wherever you look that you’ll make them up when they’re not there.”
“What will you tell Duna?” Emric asked Rhys.
“Nothing. The orphans are treated well as far as I can see.”
“What about these Sindar people?” Alurel said. “Maybe they support orphanages so they have a steady supply of child sacrifices or something.”
“Whoa,” Jeral said. “That escalated quickly.”
The others chuckled and settled into their dinner. Shonasir had said nothing since they arrived at the inn, but now they stopped mid-chew. “There is something odd.”
Their companions looked up at them. Shonasir swallowed their bite. “How did Granny Esme know the boys were responsible for the broken vase?”