Cyrilla shouldered out of her tent just after dawn, sword clamped tight in her fist as she stumbled into the cool, morning air. The campfire in front of her, recently stoked with kindling and a fresh log, burned bright against the morning frost. Past it, the body of another tent had been folded into a neat pile of poles and thin canvas beside a leather pack.
Vanos was awake, then.
Plodding down beside the fire, Cyrilla blinked and shook her head. After all that talk around the fire last night about the vigor and vitality of youth, here she was dragging her feet. The old man must have thought her a fool.
“We’ll see what kind of fool I am,” she grumbled. She snatched up her sword and stood, looking around. “Where’d that old bastard get off to?”
They’d camped in the ravine during the night, underneath a natural outcropping to shield them from the wind and weather. Just up the gentle trail to east, the ravine transformed into a cliff with an unfettered view of the surrounding area.
Vanos was there, a silhouette sitting at what seemed to be the edge of the world as Cyrilla stomped up behind him. He did not turn to acknowledge her — he never did — and she had half a mind to set him ablaze for his blatant disrespect of her station.
She paused, just yards away. Could she really do it? A simple cantrip, just enough to light a spark on the edge of his cloak, was all it would take. Three flicks of the finger and she could send the old soldier flailing to his death. Then, at least, she’d finally be free of his mockery. His kindnesses tinged with backhanded compliments. His weathered tolerance, tempered with disinterest and disregard when he thought she wasn’t looking.
Her fingers twitched up, tapping at the lines of power floating in the air around her, then left as she reached the apex of the Firelight Cantrip. She’d tried to use the magic last night to spark a fire, but Vanos insisted on doing it the old fashioned way.
Ahead of her, the shadow shifted and spoke. “Perhaps, my lady, before you kill me, you should ask yourself a simple question.”
“Yeah?” Cyrilla sneered. “What’s that?”
“If you kill me here, do you earnestly think you can find your way back home alive?” He stood, a lanky figure in traveling leathers. Vanos was a far cry from the soldiers to which she was accustomed, always dressed in heavy armor with swords polished and their armor bright and gleaming.
Cyrilla tried to keep her hand steady, but it quivered all the same. He was right, she knew. Without him, she wouldn’t last a week before she died of thirst or one of the forest tribes found her and ripped her flesh from her bones.
“Just know that I could kill you with a word,” she said.
“Of course, my lady.”
She could hear the amusement in his voice. Rage boiled up in her, and it took all of her strength not to set him alight. Instead, she released her grip on the magic and marched toward him. As she closed the distance between them, Cyrilla realized that she had no idea what to do once she reached him. Should she scratch his face? Slap him? Punch him in the gut?
Would Vanos allow her even that slight indulgence?
A slap, she decided. But as she drew close to him, something caught her eye on the wide horizon. Her pace slowed at the edge of the cliff, and Cyrilla found herself looking over a blanket stitched of green treetops and quiet leaves.
A forest stretched below them, all the way to the horizon. She saw mountains rise in the distance, a faint outline against the morning haze. Closer still, shooting up among the trees, Cyrilla spotted stone spires and smooth, circular domes.
“Ruins,” she whispered. “Those are ruins!”
Beside her, Vanos nodded. “Rumor was that the Old Empire spanned from sea to sea in its heyday, but that was long ago. Those old buildings were torn down, their resources harvested or brought to ruin by those who came after. This is the only place where they still stand.”
It was before her now. Her destiny. The magic of an ancient world, sitting within a distant shadow on the horizon.
“How do we get there?” she asked.
In response, Vanos kicked at the ground.
Cyrilla looked down. A rope, wrapped neatly around a nearby boulder, ran along the edge of the cliff, beneath Vanos’s boot, and disappeared over the edge.
“No,” Cyrilla said, backing away. “Absolutely not. There has to be another way.”
Vanos shook his head. “If there is, I’ve never seen it. And trust me, I’ve looked. Gather your gear, my lady. You’re going first.”