It didn't seem as malevolent as she remembered.
Sometimes, in the loneliness of the night, Kalin had thought about the mirror she had found with Tamlen. She would try and change the memory, so that instead of events playing out to their tragic conclusion, she pulled Tamlen away and smashed the mirror into harmless pieces. No matter how hard she tried, the sequence of events always played out the same. She was always cast in the same role, the same ending, cutting Tamlen's throat to save him from existence as a darkspawn.
Kalin pushed the memories deep into the crevices of her mind. When homesickness came upon her, she would engage her companions in conversation or busy herself in some other way. It wasn't as though she could return to her clan and act as though nothing had happened, so there was little point dwelling on them. There was no place for her now, and her side would feel lonely without Tamlen there.
Now the shattered, ugly thing was sat there, glaring at her. It was daring her to touch it.
She felt her dog lick her fingers with a low whine, and Ariane's hand on her shoulder, squeezing it gently. The other Dalish understood what it was to lose a clan-mate. Everyone in the clan was a family member, but none had been more so to her than Tamlen and Ashalle. To return here was the hardest thing anyone could ask of her. She would have given up on her desire to find Morrigan, if she had known it would mean coming here. One thing she could not forsake though was her Dalish culture – she would return the book Morrigan had stolen from her people.
"I heard that a baby was born in your clan recently, and they named him after Tamlen," Ariane offered softly. "They haven't forgotten him. In a way, he can live after death. Immortal, like our ancestors."
Kalin gave a weak smile. It would comfort her greatly to imagine that Tamlen was at peace now, guided by Falon'Din and no longer suffering alone, afraid. That was the very same thing she had told herself when she realised that he was gone and her fate was to become a Warden. And then he had found her and he had been alive, but dying, corrupted. She had deluded herself into thinking he was at rest in the hope of easing her conscience, but the whole time he had been suffering. It had been a grave injustice for her to brush off his torment that way.
"I'm amazed that this mirror was actually able to kill someone," Finn breathed, staring at it in wonder and awe. "How could the darkspawn taint enable it to do that?"
"The mirror didn't kill him," Kalin replied quietly, turning to face her two companions.
"But that's what your Keeper told us at our last meeting," said Ariane, frowning. "She said that after you awoke, you took a couple of others back to the cave and looked for Tamlen, even though the human Warden said that he was certainly dead. The two who went with you even confirmed that he was dead, and that the darkspawn had taken his body."
Kalin stared at them with hollow eyes. Ariane seemed confused and wary. She seemed to be a resilient woman, but Kalin knew that she was a true Dalish. To learn of Tamlen's fate would hurt her, but it couldn't be kept vaulted inside anymore. None of Kalin's other companions had understood her pain when she euthanized her friend. They had been filled with sympathy and empty words, and Leliana had offered a prayer to her non-existent god, but not one of them truly understood her pain. They weren't Dalish, and they had no comprehension of the closeness of a clan. The closeness she shared with Tamlen.
None of the friends she made after that learned of her encounter, or the specifics of how she became a Warden. Anders liked to tell Warden recruits that she had been single-handedly slaying a horde of darkspawn with the beasts of the forest at her command, when Duncan happened by and was staggered by his awe and amazement. Almost none of the recruits were Dalish, so most of them seemed to believe this fanciful nonsense. Kalin was happy to listen to it. She preferred it to the original.
Even Velanna, a fellow Dalish, had been left in the dark about the specifics, although she knew about Tamlen's death from a clan meeting. Kalin couldn't bring herself to tell her friend the story, perhaps because Velanna's sister faced a similar fate. A worse one, actually, as females became broodmothers. Having been unable to prevent her friend's fate, Kalin had been driven to help save Seranni from the taint, but given that she had disappeared before they slew the Mother, it seemed more and more likely that another had followed in Tamlen's footsteps. It was all Kalin could do to stop Velanna from running into the Deep Roads after her. Instead, she tried to encourage her to vent the frustration and grief onto the darkspawn, who were responsible for these injustices.
Kalin kept her back to the mirror. She felt as though it was waiting behind her, a trap, but she couldn't bear looking upon it. Sometimes she thought Tamlen was staring back from its shattered translucent surface.
"The elves we had to fight in order to reach this room had all been corrupted by the darkspawn taint," she explained, staring past them to the doorway. "I became a Warden, meaning that I can hold off its effects for a couple of decades, but in those who are left to it, they are transformed into darkspawn. They hear the call of the Archdemon in their heads, compelling them to seek out darkspawn, and they eventually succumb to the taint."
"Is there no cure?" Ariane asked.
Finn asked a question. "And this will happen to you?"
"Suddenly I'm even gladder that I was never chosen to become a Warden," he joked shakily.
Ariane was studying her with a mixture of concern and curiosity. "You think that's what happened to Tamlen, because you didn't find his body?"
Kalin's breath caught in her throat. She couldn't do this. She couldn't tell them. They would think she was a monster. They would ask: why she didn't search for longer, until she found him? Why didn't she find a way to cure him when he sought her out? Why had only she become a Grey Warden whilst he was left to be destroyed by the taint?
There wasn't an answer to these questions. All she could do was apologise and wish the past could be changed. It couldn't. She drove the thoughts from her mind and concentrated on what she could; the Blight, the Architect and Mother, the threat of a new form of golem. Kalin threw herself into her role as Grey Warden because she had to atone, and she had to stop the darkspawn from destroying others the way they had destroyed Tamlen. Elves, humans, it didn't matter – no one deserved that fate. Encountering Hespith in the Deep Roads had only strengthened her resolve. Perhaps when this was over, she would assist Orzammar in pushing back the darkspawn line, despite her hatred of being trapped underground. Perhaps she could join the Legion of the Dead alongside Sigrun? She had died alongside Tamlen anyway, when he touched that mirror.
"I think we should leave," Kalin said shortly. "Collect a shard of the mirror and let's get out of here. Go on, I can't touch this thing."
"I'll be glad when we're out of this cave as well," Ariane agreed. "Elves don't belong underground, and this place has a very sinister feel. It is disturbing to think how many Dalish were infected by the darkspawn taint here."
"Well, I certainly don't want to add to that number," said Finn. He shrugged his sleeve over his hand and reached down to pick up a shard of glass that had been shattered when Duncan demolished it. Assuming that what he did truly did destroy the evil within it.
Finn held the shard reverently in his covered hand. The awe and respect he showed this mirror irked Kalin, not to mention that he seemed to possess no empathy towards its victims, only some apathetic scholarly interest. It was truly amazing that someone so naive had survived Uldred's revolt. She would have thought a mage would know better than to become bewitched by suspicious magical items. Suspicious magical Tevinter items.
No, that was unfair. She and Tamlen had known better than to wander into this cave, and they had been wary of the mirror. Even when confronted with the walking corpses and bereskarn, they still hadn't turned back. Until it took Tamlen and she became a Warden, she could never have comprehended the danger. She was in no position to judge.
Still, she wasn't about to let the mage become enthralled by this evil mirror.
Kalin produced the rag she usually used to oil her bow and approached Finn, wrapping the cloth around the shard he was holding. Once covered so completely that she couldn't see it or feel its jagged shape, Kalin took it from his hands and shoved it in her pack.
"I thought you didn't want to touch it," Finn reminded her, seeming almost disappointed that it had been taken from him.
"This piece is no less dangerous than the rest of the mirror. Seeing as I'm the only one immune to the taint, it makes sense that I should be the one to carry it."
"Are you sure?" Ariane asked. "We don't mind, if it brings back too many memories. It can't be easy."
Kalin swallowed. "It isn't. But I'd sooner carry it that risk either of you being exposed to the taint."
She hoped they hadn't already been infected. Morrigan wasn't around this time to cook up some of her dubious magic tricks and resolve the threat. At least if they found her, it might be worth all this.
Ariane and Finn waited, clearly expecting Kalin to make the first move. She gestured towards the upward tunnel that led out of the cave. "Go on, I'll follow in a moment."
The dog gave her a curious stare, but with an encouraging nod, he raced up towards the surface. As her companions disappeared from sight, saving their amicable chatter for the clean, open air, Kalin turned a hard glare towards the mirror. They had unfinished business, she and it. Duncan may have shattered the main pane of glass, but many shards remained sticking out of the frame. Some were as large as her arm.
When she first began her time as a Grey Warden, she prayed to almost all of the Creators. She thanked them for sparing her life, so that she could seek justice for Tamlen. Afterwards, Kalin had beseeched each of the Creators to help her on her mission. Most importantly, she sent a prayer to Falon'Din – and had sent many since – asking him to take care of her friend and guide him safely to eternal rest. Mythal was called upon to protect the remainder of her clan as they travelled north to flee the Blight, and she prayed again for their safety when a number of them were called upon to fight. Andruil and Elgar'nan she asked to aid her in hunting down every last darkspawn and destroying them for what they had done to Tamlen and herself. That she had been led here in return suggested an unusual response to her plea. Perhaps they wished her to confront her true enemy, assuming that the Creators wanted to intervene. Her final prayer she devoted to Dirthamen, and it was one of those she held closest to her heart – that no one would ever discover how she had failed Tamlen and what had happened as a result. She couldn't bear the disappointment of her people added to the weight of her guilt.
Kalin wondered if the Creators had been conspiring to lead her to this place. She could shatter the mirror once and for all, so that it would harm no more. And then... she could finally ease the burden on her conscience? With the mirror gone, justice would have been done and she could hunt the rest of the darkspawn with a clear mind. Perhaps the time had also come to release her secret. Perhaps Dirthamen had led Velanna and Ariane to her – a reminder that she was not alone and she could confide in them.
That would come later. First, she had unfinished business with this mirror to resolve.
Casting a glance around, Kalin spotted a heavy sword that appeared to be darkspawn construction, perhaps belonging to one of the same darkspawn that Duncan had slain in this room. She hefted it into her hands, bracing her whole body to compensate for its weight. It seemed absurd that someone could use such an unwieldy weapon.
Kalin dragged the sword to the mirror, but she knew she couldn't lift it. There were no other weapons about – her bow and small daggers were no use here. The mirror mocked her. Even as a Warden, she couldn't hurt it.
With a wounded cry, Kalin smashed her fist through a large pane of the mirror's glass. It shattered beneath the blow, fragments raining down on the ground with a bittersweet ringing sound. Her knuckles wept from the impact, but it had a cathartic feel. Finally, the anger and sorrow could be released. She braced herself, and punched another shard of the glass. And then another. Not a single piece would she leave hanging in the frame. The glimmering shards would litter the ground, as harmless as droplets of rain.
"You've lost," she whispered.
Was Tamlen – wherever he was – watching her? Did he feel a small amount of consolation to see the evil mirror completely ruined? No, wait, there was still one more thing. Duncan had advised her clan to purge the cave with fire if they attempted to enter and recover some lost elven lore. She didn't believe that Keeper Marethari would have sent more Dalish in after knowing what happened there. Probably, the clan moved on immediately, but it was clear that others hadn't heeded Marethari's warnings, and had come investigating regardless. They probably hadn't cleansed this place with flame. That was the last thing that should be done before they left.
Kalin ventured up the surface tunnel quickly. She had seen mages cast a spell that combined grease and fire to create an unstoppable flame that consumed all it touched. Hopefully, Finn had learned such spells and could purge the cave more quickly than if she were to bring wood and manually start a fire.
Infused with a sense of purpose, she sprinted up the tunnel to meet her companions. The sharp light of day pinched her eyes, but Kalin ignored it and hurried over to them. Her dog whined as he noticed the blood on her hand, and sniffed at it in concern.
"Maker's breath!" Finn exclaimed. "What happened to your hand?"
"Nothing," she replied, shoving it behind her back. That was irrelevant now, when the issue of burning the cave had to take priority. "I need you to use a grease fire spell to purge the cave of the taint."
"You want me to go back in there, alone?" he asked apprehensively.
Kalin had hoped to avoid returning again, but if it got the job done. "Fine, I'll go with you."
"No, no," Ariane protested. "You need that wound cleaned up. How about I take care of that, and your trusty mutt goes with Finn?"
The mabari barked in indignation at being referred to as a 'mutt', but happily trotted off towards the cave. The mage looked reasonably satisfied, and went to follow his guardian.
Now alone, Ariane produced a pouch of herbs and pulled Kalin over to join her on a fallen log. The other Dalish silently began cleaning the wound. It hurt, but Kalin ignored it. She had suffered far worse injuries in her travels than a scrape on her hand. She had been shot in Ostagar, almost killed by Ser Cauthrien in Denerim, enthralled by a sloth demon, almost blown up with the Archdemon, and most recently, used as a test subject by the Architect. Compared to everything else, the cut on her hand was practically a treat.
"There's glass in this wound," Ariane noted. When Kalin didn't reply, she continued. "Did something happen with the mirror? Was it still working?"
"I don't know. I had to make sure. That's why Finn is purging the cave now."
"Why didn't you smash it with a rock?" the other Dalish asked, her treatment slow and methodical. Kalin turned to watch her.
"I wasn't thinking," she said, frowning. "Be careful, my blood carries the taint."
Ariane paused and considered her. "If you can carry the taint and live, why did the other elves in the cave turn into ghouls? Does being a Grey Warden make you immune?"
"More like being immune makes you a Grey Warden," she gave a humourless laugh. "Although I would have still died without Duncan's intervention, because it's more complicated than it seems. Warden blood isn't the same as a darkspawn's, but it is tainted by it. If you aren't immune naturally, you cannot be a Warden."
"Almost like surviving a disease."
"Only we don't survive," Kalin said, quirking her lips at Ariane's confusion. "Becoming a Grey Warden is a death sentence. The same thing that ensures our immunity is what will kill us in the end."
"So it's only temporary. And becoming a Grey Warden wouldn't have saved your friend Tamlen."
Kalin stiffened at the swerve in the conversation. Suddenly she wanted Finn and her dog to return and provide a source of distraction. The mage could bicker with Ariane whilst Kalin retreated into her thoughts. Actually, she would rather have Zevran. Everything seemed more satisfying when viewing it through a pleasurable haze. And she felt alive again when she was with him. Maybe she should go to Antiva, instead of her intended foray into the Deep Roads with the Legion. But for how long? Wardens were not supposed to live a normal life, and she had sworn to Tamlen that she would slay every last darkspawn, or as close to that as possible.
"Maybe he didn't become a ghoul?" Ariane offered, finishing off her treatment of the wound. The mage would knit the flesh together when he returned. "Maybe Tamlen died from the mirror, and his body disappeared."
Kalin shook her head. "He did become a ghoul. I saw him."
She stared at the mouth of the cave. "Keeper Marethari believed Duncan when he said that Tamlen was dead, and we would not find him. I didn't, because he was a shemlen, and what did they know?" Kalin snorted quietly. "I returned to the cave – with the Keeper's permission – and searched everywhere for him. Duncan tried to convince me again that I would find nothing. This time he convinced Merrill and Fenarel too. I ignored them all, and kept looking. There wasn't an inch of that ruined cave I didn't search, but I didn't find him. I concluded that Duncan must be right, and the darkspawn came for his body after I was rescued."
Ariane reached her hand out and closed it over Kalin's healthy one. Her voice was soft and gentle. "I'm sorry."
"No, you don't understand," Kalin said tersely. "I should have looked harder. Tamlen wasn't there because the darkspawn took him, but he wasn't any deader than I had been. The difference was that the taint changed me into a Warden, and it turned him into a ghoul."
"How can you be so sure unless..." Ariane's eyes widened. "You saw him? But how? Everyone said he was dead and his body wasn't recovered."
Kalin closed her eyes, remembering the evening in camp, years ago. Alistair had mixed up some unbelievably dull stew. Leliana had tried to improve it with some herbs she had picked up in the Brecillian forest – only after Kalin had discarded the ones that were actually poisonous. She suspected that either Morrigan or Zevran collected the discarded poisonous herbs later. Kalin had been stretched out near the fire, slightly nauseous after being allowed a sample of Oghren's ale. Zevran had been trying to cure her with some ribald story that only made her feel worse. There had been nothing to suggest the evening would be different to any other.
Their first mistake had been that both she and Alistair had been asleep. No one conscious would have been able to sense shrieks except for Wardens, and their other allies could only rely on sight to warn of darkspawn attacks. It was a gift from the Creators that Wynne had been with them, her healing spells saving those that were hurt in the ambush.
After the frenzied fight, Kalin had noticed a shriek that had hung back. It seemed different, more like a person, and with fear, revulsion and shock she realised that she knew it. Or rather, him.
As Kalin had called out his name in shock, Tamlen had fled back towards the forest. She warned her suspicious and concerned friends not to harm him, before taking off after him. They observed from a distance as she approached.
Tamlen had been a wreck; his skin was a mottled grey, corrupted by the taint, his eyes were yellow and sickly, his hair had fallen out, his voice rasping, and he hunched over as though in pain. Kalin had reached out to him, but he recoiled. He warned her that he couldn't stop the change; that the Archdemon was calling to him, and that he was pulled to kill her. She tried to convince him that she could find a cure for the taint, but he didn't believe it. It wasn't as though she believed it possible herself. In the last bit of coherency he could manage, he told her that he loved her. That he always had.
"Tamlen begged me to end his life," she said softly. "So I did. He closed his eyes, sinking onto the ground. I took my knife and slit it quickly and painlessly as I could across his throat. Then I held him in my arms and waited for him to die."
Ariane stared in shocked silence, her brow pinched. "Maybe... maybe it was for the best. There wasn't anything you could have done to help."
"We buried him," Kalin continued, only half-aware of Ariane's presence. "It wasn't a proper Dalish burial, but he was safe beneath the roots of a tree, as he should be. All the proper rites were already performed for him anyway, when the Keeper declared him dead. I said the prayer to Falon'Din, and then we moved on almost immediately."
"I'm so sorry," Ariane breathed. "Didn't your clan know about this?"
She shook her head. "It was too painful, I couldn't do it. Other than those who were with me at the time, no one else knows about it. I'd prefer my clan to believe Tamlen's fate was as quick and painless as possible. He wouldn't want them to suffer, knowing the truth."
"Then thank you for trusting me with this."
Kalin bit down on her lip, trying to keep her face from wavering, but her strength broke. A tear slipped from one dark eye, sliding down her cheek. She didn't bother to wipe it away.
Ariane wrapped an arm around Kalin's shoulders, guiding her head to rest on the other elf's shoulders. She allowed her emotions to spill over as Ariane held her safely, comfortingly. It felt similar to when she and Tamlen had been children, and she had scratched herself on a stinging nettle. She had sobbed and sobbed, and he had held her hand, taking her to find an antiseptic leaf to rub on the wound. He had always been there to protect and support her, just as she had for him.
It had been a long time since she had wept like this; not since she had killed Tamlen.
Footsteps drew closer, but Ariane didn't move, so Kalin ignored it. A moment later, she felt the tough fur of her hound against her leg. She pulled back, still leaning against her companion, but now able to see the newcomers. The mabari slumped in front of her, resting his heavy head in her lap and staring up at her with plaintive eyes. She gave him a watery smile and patted his head.
"Did I... miss something?" Finn asked, brushing off his robes as he arrived. "What happened?"
"Weren't you paying attention before?" Ariane asked him pointedly. "You heard what happened in that cave, how that mirror tainted and killed her friend. Creators, don't humans have any empathy?"
"Oh! Of course," he said distractedly. "Uh, are you alright?"
Kalin nodded, getting to her feet and wiping her eyes. "Did you burn it all?"
"Yes. I had to use flint and tinder for the actual fire – not a big fan of destructive spells – but with the grease the whole place went up in moments." He cast a slightly disappointed glance back at the cave. "I hope we didn't accidentally destroy anything valuable. There could have been ancient knowledge in there."
"You're welcome to go back in and take a look," Ariane offered.
Finn gave her a wry look. "That's quite alright. The lights of Arlathan will be more than compensation enough. I should take care of that." He extended a hand, and a wave of healing magic spread to Kalin's cleaned wound, knitting the flesh back together. Once finished, she replaced her torn glove, wrapping a makeshift bandage around the tender skin first.
"Are you ready to go?" Ariane asked her.
"Yes." Kalin cast one last glance back at the cave mouth. A plume of thick smoke was flowing from it, the crackle of flame reaching their ears. Every last thing that the cave held – every trace of darkspawn taint and ancient magic – would be destroyed. No one else would be hurt by it. She didn't know what Morrigan intended to do with these mirrors, but when they found the next one, Kalin would make sure she destroyed that too. There was no telling the evil that they contained, corrupted by the sinister forces that had used them since the ancient elves fell.
She smiled at her followers, ushering them along the forest path. "I think I'll be fine now, thank you both. Tamlen would be glad that it's finished now, I think. People will be safe from it now, and the only shard of that mirror that remains is the one we have. Once that is destroyed, it will be over."
And then perhaps she could start afresh, before her time came to heed the earth's call, and join her old friend.