“The southern facing wing is far more intricate than the tour guide hinted at. The remnants of these archways aren’t exactly ‘insignificant’ or ‘not worth including for the general populous’. Most of the tile work has eroded or been stolen—” Chiyo pressed the stiff button on the side of her recorder before pinching the wrist strap between her teeth. She needed both her hands to scale the heavy blocks and rubble that obstructed her path. Laced leather boots scrapped against the worn stone, but her slacks were already grayed with dust and dirt. Standing upright again, she ran her hand along the classic elvhen arch, fingernails snagging on the anciently constructed surface.
With another sharp click, the explorer continued her observations. “There is still mortar and tool marks visible on the anterior side. Tevinter historians have not always been openly forthcoming, but one look through their archives tells us much of where these once grand materials ended up. How the first humans managed to strip these structures without ruining them completely is a different matter entirely. Imagine these lines capped over with gold, how each day’s light would have glowed upon them...”
She leaned far back, sending a few loose white waves to fall from her brow. Chiyo’s eyes traced over the fine masonry made by the skilled hands of her fallen ancestors. No matter how many sites she visited, these desiccated places hidden away from the hustle and bustle of the endlessly progressing world still managed to steal her breath away. But she couldn’t linger, there was still much to see if she dared ignore the warning signs written in glaring Tevene. She could read the language better than speaking it, but a feign of ignorance had worked before in other restricted places. Except her last visit to Antiva, they’d even cuffed her for that one.
A short jump down set the elf inside the ruin, already yards behind the flagged chains. Authorized Staff Only. No Public Access. But there wasn’t a soul around to enforce those posted statutes. She hadn’t seen a guard on patrol in over an hour, the complex too huge and sprawling to afford constant vigilance. It wasn’t like the Temple of Mythal at all, the most visited traveler’s site in the south. Preserved and restored, the grandeur of millions of gold tiles and fountains and the presence of live-in sentinels all dressed in ceremonial garb, thousands flocked every year to get a taste of antiquated Arlathan. The gift shop wasn’t half bad either.
That wasn’t what she wanted, though. The spotlights and the protective glass and the placards with their neat fonts on the walls. It was what the proprietors and the constricting Chantry didn’t want the people to see that interested her most. Knowledge kept behind closed doors and in musty books, there was magic in discovery if one knew where to look.
“The flooring has signs of having recently undergone some excavation, none of it looks like remodeling or for integrity. There’s no scaffolding or bracing anywhere in here.” Chiyo said into the little metal box clasped inside her hand as she approached a wide yawn in the stone. The path bore the rubber tire marks of a wheelbarrow and the scrapes of hand tools, notches stood out on the edge of a deep gap freshly made. “There should not be digging for artifacts here. The council doesn’t meet until this fall. When I last checked there were no active permits for site disturbances of any kind.”
The traditions adhering Dalish still had their culture to protect, it had taken generations to build up those hard-won treaties. The Chantry and its many extensive branches might own the lands these ruins were on or have influence with their elven handlers, but it was the staunch people of the Dales that gave any and all permission for changes to be made involving their historically erased origins. Her people had possession of less than a dozen substantial locations; there just wasn’t enough money to buy them all back.
Chiyo glanced to briefly check the charge left in the blue lyrium crystals fueling her gadget. Half depleted, she needed to work quickly before she lost both power and more daylight though the approaching evening would cool the humid air considerably.
With a running start, she leaped across the divide and landed lightly on the dense soles of her boots. She reached the stable ledge of the far side where no marks of modern alterations could immediately be seen.
“The way splits here. The ancient elves certainly knew how to build a lasting stair. Two thousand years later and these steps still bear weight. My landlord can’t even claim that.” She carefully made her way up a narrow side stair to the second level, but as her head rounded the last bend she caught a flash piercing momentarily through the limited light of the old, crumbling temple.
Chiyo stooped behind the carved half-wall at the top of the tread, shoving the recorder into one of the copious pockets of her jacket. No one else should be back here. She shouldn’t even be back here. If security caught her, she was sure to wind up on another banned list, already barred from more than a handful of Orlesian locations for trespassing.
She’d spent almost an entire paycheck just getting to the Imperium; there was nothing left in her budget for criminal charges or fines.
Peering around the corner, she held her breath and waited, scanning the vaulted alcove for any signs of movement. That wasn’t a flashlight, it hadn’t panned, and her ears had picked up on a faint pop. Several moments passed and all remained undisturbed. Maybe it was just a nervous trick of her mind or a glint reflected through one of the tapered, sparse windows at the wrong time.
With more caution than what she’d entered with, the curious elf continued on into the flaring chamber, but her nerve was rattled. Again she glanced over her shoulder, half expecting each time to spot an angry face and a badge. Recorder back in hand, Chiyo made several quick, discreet notes of her surroundings, milling down the widening hall and its offshoots. Cracked and faded paint lingered on the high walls. The outline of an arm, a mountain, and the carved antlers of ghostly halla dotted the buckling surface. Soon she grew calm again, becoming bolder once more as the artwork she found was more unspoiled. Time had stolen much of what had been missed over the many cleanses of the Andrastrian faithful, all but removing Arlathan and its wonders from the record.
“This one here, estimated to be at least 3 meters in length, is clearly another depiction of the tainting of Andruil.” Chiyo pressed her nose nearly to the bricks, studying the rich pigments in the crackled painting. “The same black helmet is universal in all the images painted, as is the construct of the armor made in the Void. These portraits must have been done all close in time to another, or an original inspired the rest. It would have been nice if these artists signed their work, then we might learn more.”
“Maybe they preferred to remain anonymous for a reason.”
Chiyo shrieked. The recorder slipped from her hold and only just escaped careening into the floor by a fumbling finger snaring the strap she’d failed to adorn. She spun on her heels and saw a tall man—an elf by the shape of his long ears— across the way. A hefty camera was holstered about his neck and a satchel with a bulky flash poked out from beneath the flap. He wore no uniform or emblem, only a closely fitted button-up pocked with sweat brought on by the Tevinter summer heat. The clothes may once have been nice, but the stonewashed dyes and mended stitching boded heavy wear.
“What are you doing here?” She demanded, hitting the snappy switch repeatedly before hiding the little device away.
“I might ask the same of you. A bit lost from your tour group?” The other elf asked, taking a moment to dab the moisture from his hairless head with the side of a rolled up sleeve. He seemed more than at ease eyeing the snooper caught in the act, a smile affixed itself to his broad lips.
“Are you with the Chantry?” Chiyo questioned again while she scanned quickly for any immediate exits. It was the quickest conclusion to cross her mind. The religious organization could be preparing this location for appeal, and photographs would do much to sway the board.
“Is that a serious question?” The tall man laughed, holding his camera steady when he vibrated from the preposterousness of her inquiry. “Why don’t you move along, this isn’t a place for wayward souls to wander. There are reasons it has been marked unsafe.”
Face wrinkled, the white-haired woman promptly frowned at the jest. “I can’t leave yet, I don’t have enough information for my next article. Why are they digging at the entrance?”
Without having to look at where he was headed the man walked forward, twisting a cap over the shiny glass lens protruding from his chest. “There’s not much here if there was they would have postcards of it or a calendar.”
“Then what are you photographing if this place is so boring? Don’t tell me you are one of those weirdos who collect pictures of fungus and lichens… or spiders.” Chiyo almost pressed her back to the wall when he came within range, but she kept her hands off the coated surface for fear of getting any of her skin’s oils on the fragile paintings. “I had a good tip about happenings in this temple. What do you know?”
“You have many questions for a stranger. You haven’t even asked my name.” Her tense gaze was drawn up to meet the wide-set, hooded gray-blue eyes that looked down the straight plane of his nose. She did not like feeling so short, instinctually rising up on the balls of her toes to make up some of the difference. A faint crinkle formed on the edges of his thin eyelids. “Will you pry from me my secrets as well?”
The amusing way his mouth moved distracted her, the detail in the shape spoke to her sense of artistic appreciation. Curved as deeply as the arches she’d studied at the temple’s rear ingress, the hewn, cleft chin below also fell into her quick appraisal. Here was a face she could examine at every angle and find new interest. He reminded her of intricate stained glass, precisely shaped and carefully cut.
A shame that he was behind a camera and not before it.
“Only if I can publish them.” The flirty tone escaped to her own immediate embarrassment, sliding off her tongue before it could be restrained. Chiyo’s long ears threatened to burn as the horrifying thought arose of the voice recorder possibly having caught the transgression. It would not have been the first time her editor had overheard something unintended by mistake. Bringing her tone to heel, she tried not to stammer her way through the conversation. “Unless you are too busy creeping through these dead, moldering halls to sit for an interview.”
“Spoken like a true journalist.” He shook his head with another chuckle, knowing fingers working the tiny clips on the back plate of his camera. The man’s eyes finally looked away, releasing her while he slouched, spinning the tail of film around the cartridge. “Who do you write for then? I see no press-badge or logo, perhaps an independent paper. You’re too old to still be in school.”
“I write for myself,” Chiyo answered stubbornly as the strange photographer began to walk towards the other end of the illustrated gallery, popping his spent film into a small container retrieved from the old satchel at his side. She pinched the inside of her cheek with her teeth, rolling it through before she decided to follow. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, but she wouldn’t let a handsome face distract from her goal.
“Vallaselan tel’thanun.” The bald man spoke in lilting elvhen, a language even most of the Dalish had stopped using unless they were chastising one another. She’d suffered enough of it growing up to know when to be thoroughly insulted.
An aloof flick of his blue eyes in her direction had her scowling once more as she pursued. “Certainly there are more interesting and pressing matters for a young woman to lend her energies. Why not write about the war? Or the endless political upheaval incurred by Empress Celene’s policies. You could be publishing accounts of the water contamination crisis in Kirkwall.”
“Sure, like I could change those things by putting them to type. But I’m not interested in the power-grabbing and tax-expenditure nonsense. There is nothing new there for me to reveal and many who would pay to say elsewise.” Said Chiyo proudly as they approached the furthest wall.
“Is that so?” He turned his attentions up to the last and largest painting in the room, one that was difficult to see until they stood beneath it. Cast in heavy shadow, the churning bodies of demons and dragons caught in an endless, unresolved battle could be made out by a distinguishing eye. “Tell me then, writer, what does interest you.”
“The truth…” She answered with firmness, but already her focus was becoming enraptured by the astounding work. She began to pat for her recorder, unable to tear her eyes away. Chiyo could already feel the words she wanted to write brimming on the edge of her tongue, how she would describe the field of wings and horns and vicious claws.
She didn’t notice the elf that stood with his hands behind his hips, watching her as she fell away into her own thoughts. The flowing flick of her brown eyes looked past his person and Chiyo’s mouth was open in an unabashed gape. She even pressed forward, reaching up to phantom-trace a blurred edge left unfinished by the painting’s creator.
“There is something that I would like to show you but…”
“But what?” She mimed back, rising to her toes for a better view.
“We have company.” Chiyo nearly fell back into him when she heard the first warning shout in brusque Tevene.
“Which way is out!” She hissed, hiding behind the unnamed elf while she looked to the open passageways on each end of the mural.
“This place is off limits!” Barked one of the paired guards, waving his gloved hands for a halt.
“I was trying to direct the lost one.” He responded calmly in their native tongue. “To the left, go to the balcony. There is a ladder, but the last rungs are gone. Don’t stop.”
“Where are your passes? Show us your documents.” Ordered the second officer.
“What are you doing?” Chiyo saw a squat cylinder twist out from his palm, brandished between two of his long fingers.
“Take the film.” The bald elf instructed softly through an unmoving flat smile. “They’ll confiscate it from me. Tomorrow, noon. The pastry shop by the river market. Yellow sign.”
“I don’t even know your name.” Was all Chiyo could say before the roll was thrust into her hands. She clutched it tightly, the blood in her veins sung as she prepared to bolt.
With the next, and much more angered shout she shot off through the nearest doorway. Chiyo didn’t even look back to the man blocking the guards’ pursuit. She ran with a quickness that left the soles of her shoes burning and a grin that stretched her lips wide as she shoved the contraband down the collar of her shirt.
She burst out into the scarlet afternoon, swung her legs over the stone’s edge and slid down the ladder, there exactly as he’d told her. Then, off into the surrounding jungle, she was gone.
Vallaselan tel’thanun- writer without a purpose