With the team rushing as fast as they were able, it didn’t take long before they spotted the smoke trail without the aid of Lanston’s tool. The urgency of the others infected Orphelia a little, her awareness dropping as she let her anticipation grow.
She yelled them to a stop when she spotted the shelter built into the side of a small hill. “Lanston, what do you see?” she asked, keeping her own eyes on the surroundings.
“…looks like they hollowed out the side of the hill. There’s a carcass in front of the shelter. Some kind of large bird.”
“Thank the saints, food!” Sebas exclaimed. “I’m starving.”
Orphelia felt better about the hasty decision with the presence of ample food. The first team they came across rejected them because they brought enough for five, not ten. However, this team had a surplus, putting them in a position that would be more willing to bargain. “Anything else?”
“Mm, can’t see much from here. Wait, one of them is coming out. It’s…”
She looked over when he hadn’t responded in over a minute. Her eyes narrowed as she took in his flushed cheeks and parted lips. Her suspicions soared as she saw him visibly swallow.
With a quick hand, she snatched away the spyglass, ignoring his wordless sound of protest. She put it to her eye.
The entrance of the shelter was magnified. Standing beside the corpse was a petite young woman who was clearly not human. A creature she recognized as a thrall, a staple contracted elemental made prominent by the Grimoire family. She showed no concern for her nakedness as she cut away pieces of meat from the bird with sharp claws.
Suddenly, the thrall looked up and smiled at her.
Orphelia swore softly as she handed the spyglass back to Lanston. “We’re going over there.”
“Wait. What did you see?” Robert asked.
“I saw plenty of food and a thrall.”
Robert seemed clueless. Behind him, Cecile flinched and Sebas’ brows furrowed. “If there is a thrall there,” he said slowly, “we should be going the opposite way.”
“They will not dare to use the mental affinity against us,” she said, wondering where his arrogance from earlier had gone.
“The Grimoires are crazy. They rioted in the capital. There is no telling what they will do.”
“Perhaps. But there are no initiates from the Grimoire family this year.”
His frown deepened. “Who else has a thrall?”
“…I know,” Cecile said haltingly. “Lourianne Tome.”
Her words got a reaction from Robert. He scowled. “That name…isn’t that rude woman from registration? With the obnoxious man who bullied the others into letting them cut. Surely you don’t expect her to help us.”
“She’s a summoner my father has his eye on.” Cecile didn’t need to elaborate on that statement for them to understand the weight of her words. “We’ve already cooperated with her and she’s friends with my aunt.”
“Yes…I remember now. Lourianne Tome. She’s the one who caused problems for Prince Samuel and the Pottoculli family. The rumors are that she is a pervert and a beast toward women.” Sebas smiled at Cecile, nothing friendly in the expression. “You may have to pay quite the price to secure that degenerate’s cooperation, my dear.”
“I’m sure her teammates wouldn’t allow such,” Robert said. “I remember she was with Alana James. She is a woman of honor.”
“Oh? Someone you have your eye on?”
“This is hardly the time for your teasing,” Robert said. His sharp tone couldn’t hide how uncomfortable the question made him.
Orphelia decided to intervene before the conversation could continue getting off track. “We are taking a risk, yes, but all of that is irrelevant. Thralls are often overlooked as sexual playthings. People forget their casting prowess.” As if lust alone would have allowed the Grimoires to strangle the crown.
“They all have the physical affinity and are capable healers.” She looked at Robert scathingly. “Your ribs aren’t broken but you could be suffering internal injuries.” She doubted it but it was the nature of such wounds to go unnoticed by even the most experienced healers. “Your life may hang in the balance. We are going.”
Her argument was irrefutable. The team exchanged looks, silently coming to an agreement. Lanston put away his spyglass, the others took a few deep breaths, and they were on their way.
Soon, they stood outside the shelter and the thrall came over to meet them. She was different from the pictures Orphelia was shown. The Grimoire family kept their pets close to human to better entrap lustful men and drop their guards. This creature made no attempts to hide its otherness, with ash gray skin, visible small horns, and a long tail that leisurely swished through the air.
She remained naked, something that made Orphelia nervous as her summoner had plenty of time to dress her. It meant the games had already begun and this Lourianne Tome had the mental advantage. All her teammates were affected. Lanston was almost drooling while Sebas was more subtle in his interest. Robert, the chivalrous one, couldn’t look at her, his gaze averted to the sky. Cecile’s eyes flicked over the thrall but there was no lust in her gaze. If Orphelia had to guess, it was a female sizing up the competition which made her more ridiculous than the boys. She could never win comparing herself to a shapeshifter.
“Hi!” the thrall said cheerily, striking pink eyes wide and innocent. “Are you all okay? You don’t look well.”
“We’ve had a bit of trouble,” Orphelia said quickly, refusing to let the others ruin their golden chance. “It would be much appreciated if we could share your shelter and partake in your catch.” She nodded her head in the direction of the monster carcass.
“I see. And what would my summoner receive in return? Besides the joy of giving.”
In the end, the world moved for profit. “We have little to offer now—”
“Oh, I wouldn’t say that.” The thrall’s sly smile conveyed all the meaning it needed as she blatantly moved her eyes over Orphelia, tail moving faster.
She ignored the innuendo. “But we can offer plenty of recompense once the qualifiers are finished. We would also be willing to work together for a better result.”
“I see. One moment.” The thrall closed her eyes, likely communicating with her summoner. After a few moments, she opened her eyes, smile widening. “My summoner is listening.”
Orphelia reluctantly motioned toward Cecile, hoping her eyes communicated what she wanted. Luckily, the girl already understood. Her haughty attitude was nowhere to be found as she inclined her head. “Hello. My name is Cecile Guiness. Your summoner is well-acquainted with my aunt, Maxine Guiness.”
“Of course. You must be the daughter of one of the marquis’ elder children.”
“Yes. You should know that my family’s name is enough to promise an apt reward. Out of respect for our previous cooperation, I will leave it to Lady Tome to name her price.”
“Mm. Is there anything else you’d like to offer?”
Orphelia couldn’t tell if the offer was inadequate or if Lourianne Tome was fishing for as much profit as she could get. The thrall gave nothing away. Still, it wasn’t the time to be arrogant.
“The only other thing we can offer is our gratitude.”
Sebas opened his mouth to flaunt his bloodline once again but she stopped him with a cold glare. As if a creature with the mental affinity didn’t know who he was. She doubted he thought of anything else. Orphelia wouldn’t be surprised if Lourianne Tome had had them all investigated after their confrontation during the registration. It’s what she would have done.
“One moment.” The thrall closed her eyes for several long moments. Just as Orphelia was beginning to feel a little nervous, she opened her eyes. “My summoner has agreed to allow you into the shelter and freely offers her food. As for cooperation between your teams, it must be discussed when the other members of her team return.”
The thrall cut a large section of meat from the bird and went back inside. Orphelia swallowed her trepidation and followed, leading her team into the shelter.