Grace had prayed that sending her song through the taint itself, rather than directly to the Darkspawn would enable her to keep some distance. Her prayers remained unanswered as she felt literally thousands of minds pressing in on her own. It was a blur of images, a roar of noise and a rage that clawed at her. She forced it back, flowed her song through the dark veins in the stone. "Stop! Return deep into the earth. Sleep and only come when I call." There was no room for defeat; if she failed, they died. She knew the Darkspawn had halted; so she kept going, soothing them, coaxing them to return to the deeper levels and sleep. There were too many and they overwhelmed her, dragging her down into the darkness. She felt her mind scream in agony, wanted to drive her dagger through her own chest to stop the pain. She couldn't remember why she was doing this, her thoughts were no longer her own. Her eyes flared open; but it was not the cave she saw, nor the Wardens. Instead she was caught in the minds of the Alpha's. Through them she experienced the rage of what they were, the injustice of their lives. She felt their need to destroy and taint all that was not like them so that everything would be the same and they would not be the only ones to suffer. She saw the world as they wished it. The taint throbbed in the very core of the planet; it became the veins of the earth. Plant life became blackened twisted things that took life rather than gave it. The water was poisoned; Thedas became a barren landscape, the blackened trunks of trees reaching to the sky screaming for the Maker to save them. The last of the humans; dwarves, elves and qunari were rounded up, the women screaming as they were dragged away to become brood mothers, the men having their flesh torn from them and consumed as their agonised wails tailed into silence, as the world fell to the horde.
The Wardens watched in horror as Grace's face twisted in agony and terror. The taint was slowly moving across her hand and when she began to scream Nathaniel pulled her away, but her eyes were unseeing. "Forgive me Grace." He hit her hard, catching her body as she lost consciousness.
Hunter gave a harsh growl, torn between wanting to tear Nathaniel apart for hurting Grace and yet knowing he had probably just saved her.
"Hunter we need to get out of here." Nathaniel's tone firm; as he put Grace's limp body over his shoulder. They crept out of the cave; watching as the Darkspawn moved towards the lower chambers, moving in an almost sleepy fashion.
They progressed through the tunnels having no concept of time. Nathaniel allowed only brief stops; snatches of restless sleep in dark crevices, terrified that they would never find a way out. Grace had remained unconscious; her link with the taint had proven too much for her. She whimpered and moaned her face tight with pain. Nathaniel cradled her tight to his body, refusing to acknowledge the terror that was tearing into his chest. Anders would be able to help her, he refused any other option.
Hearts pounding; they finally reached the surface, breaking through a small concealed cave in the hillside, night had fallen, though which night they had no idea. Nathaniel realised that without Hunter; Shadow and Rajack's stone sense, it was unlikely they would ever have found the way out. They had to fight their way through the thick foliage to head back towards the mines. They moved steadily forward until they had left the mines behind, resting on a small hill that afforded them a good vantage point. Nathaniel gently laid Grace on the ground, wincing at the large bruise on her jaw. Hunter lay at her side, gently nudging her and licking her face trying to rouse her, Shadow glaring into the night daring anyone else to attack them.
Grace felt the icy breeze first and caught the scent of grass. She felt the pounding of her own heart and the pain in her chest and jaw. Slowly she opened her eyes, the barren landscape replaced with softly swaying trees and the prickle of grass beneath her. Slowly she sat up; tears slipping down her cheeks when she realised they had all made it out and the world had not fallen. Wrapping her arms around her legs; pressing her face to her knees, Grace let her tears fall. She didn't realise she was slowly rocking and whimpering until she felt arms wrap around her, glancing up to see Nathaniel's stunning grey eyes, clouded with concern.
Nathaniel tenderly cupped her cheek. "We will camp here tonight; rest and leave at first light tomorrow."
Grace nodded curling against him shivering.
Danforth built a small fire, Lucus and Rajack collecting branches to camouflage them. Nathaniel had to coax Grace to eat something; none of them were hungry, but they needed their strength. They had only one tent; the others had been dropped during the fighting. The Wardens urged Grace to use it. She hadn't spoken since she had returned to consciousness, but her eyes told them she didn't want to be alone. Danforth spoke quietly to Nathaniel who gently picked her up and carried her firstly down to the small stream next to the camp. Nathaniel helped Grace out of her armour, horrified by the blood soaked tunic beneath. It had long since dried, but it was no less disturbing. He checked the wound; the broken flesh had healed, but the skin was badly bruised. He felt a stab of guilt that he had not checked her for injury in the Deep Roads. Flushing slightly he removed his own armour and supported her as she bathed; taking the opportunity to wash himself as well, covered in blood and dirt from their days beneath the surface. Grace never took her eyes from Nathaniel as he carried her into the tent; wrapping a blanket around them, holding her close, trying to bring her some warmth.
Grace watched her fingertips gently trace the stubble of his jaw, gazing into his eyes. He was warmth and softness and the taint within him was as gentle as the Darkspawn's was vicious. She could feel them crowding into her mind, their screams and rage. She let out a slow breath and leaned forward, her lips feather light on his. The screams faded into a background noise as her lips gently explored his. Her fingers wound in his hair as her tongue tentatively lingered against his lips. Grace sighed as she sank into the warmth of Nathaniel's mouth as he leaned into the kiss; feeling his hands moving through her hair as his tongue slowly explored, the pressure of his lips against hers gradually building. Grace felt heat begin to replace the ice that had seemed to have settled over her as a second skin. The taste of his lips, the heat of his breath as she drank him in was more potent than any aphrodisiac.
Nathaniel's knew he would be lying if he said he had never wondered what it would be like to be with her, but Grace was his friend and this was taking advantage of her vulnerable state. He forced himself to move; almost relieved when Grace clung to him, her eyes begging him to stay. "Grace..." Whatever he had been about to say was lost as her lips pressed against his. Nathaniel could barely contain the soft moan when she removed his tunic; her lips ghosting down his chest, his eyes squeezing shut at the sensation as her tongue moved lazily across his muscles, lingering at scars, placing soft kisses before moving on. Nathaniel felt his desire increase until he was pressing her onto the ground, his lips claiming hers in a need that matched her own. He sat up slightly; slowly moving her tunic up her body and over her head. His lips sought her throat, aching with each soft whimper. He lingered on the scar from the arrow, placing his own light kisses against the silvery mark. He gently kissed her bruised skin as his hands trailed across her ribs.
Grace wound her arms around his waist, her hands tracing the scars on his back, learning the ridges of muscle of his powerful upper body. Her body seemed to flare with heat as his lips danced across her breasts, savouring each sweet sensation. The pressure of his hips against her own made Grace tremble with anticipation; the friction between them increasing with each kiss, each touch.
Nathaniel raised himself on his arms; sinking into liquid gold, his breath harsh in his ears. He bit back the growl of desire as she unfastened his breeches, moving the constricting material passed his hips. He heard her soft gasp as she gazed at him. He flushed and smiled, his eyes closing as her fingertips stroked his length.
Nathaniel pulled back; impatiently kicking off his breeches, before slowly dragging the material of her own, down her legs. Then his body was flush against hers once more; he kissed her with hunger now, his tongue plundering her mouth before he bit her lower lip, tenderly sucking and soothing the plumped flesh with his tongue. Trembling; he felt her legs move up his and hook around his hips.
Grace closed her eyes, her neck arching back as her body seemed to be consumed by fire. Each thrust was like an electrical burst within her, her entire body tingling and trembling with sensation. His lips were once again pressing against hers, drowning the cries she had barely been aware she was making. Her nails drew down his back making him arch, his own moans greedily taken into her mouth.
He was startled to feel his own climax approaching; pressing his lips to her ear, begging her to reach her own orgasm with him. He was rewarded with the tightening and pulsing of her body around his and he buried his face to her throat as his body spasmed, his breaths gasps as he gave his last thrust before collapsing against her, kissing her lips, his fingers caressing her face.
Nathaniel wanted to say so many things; but it all fell away as she kissed him again, before he gently moved to her side, pulling her tight to his body, smiling as she sank into sleep in his arms.
Anders retreated to his room as soon as they reached the Keep. Duncan detained everyone else to inform them of what had happened. Alistair and Zevran had turned icy at the suspicion of Grace's action. When Zevran had been told that his love had sent the Darkspawn to sleep he had felt an astonishing array of emotions from shock; fear, anger, pride and admiration. He had not been alone, the Warden's having held onto their composure as best they could only because of Grace's reaction to her father. They had not wished to distress her further. Fear was now the overriding emotion. Fear of what cost would be exacted on the woman who had stretched the known boundaries of their world and made the impossible, possible.
It seemed hours before they were finally free to join Anders, their anxiety for his wellbeing excruciating when they were told of the tainted Templar. They found him sitting in a corner of the room on the floor; his arms wrapped around his legs, his face buried against his knees, muffled sobs shaking his body. He jumped as Alistair and Zevran moved to him, but relaxed in their arms.
"It hurt so much." He whispered.
"You are safe." Zevran soothed helping to remove his jacket.
"What if it wasn't just a random taint, what if they have Darkspawn Templars." He shuddered violently.
"Then we will kill them all." Alistair growled; placing a soft kiss to Anders forehead, his eyes moving to Zevran. "Whatever it takes."
Anders glanced at him snuggling into the broad chest, sighing appreciatively as Alistair's arms wrapped around him protectively. "My hero." He murmured.
Zevran gently brushed the hair from his face. "How do you feel apart from that my love? Loghain expressed his concern that you still seem ... off balance."
Anders pouted. "I did have a mountain fall on me you know." Alistair smiled, his chuckle vibrating his chest making Anders turn to him startled. "Well I did!"
Alistair gently tilted his face, checking him over for signs of damage. "Then we shall have to ensure we are in the same group next time so I can shield you from any trouble making mountains."
Anders eyes widened at the husky tone and nestled closer to the warrior. "Yes please." He murmured sinking into the warmth of a much longed for kiss.
Duncan sank into Sunshine's arms, pulling her as tight to his body as he could. "My love."
His soft murmur ignited her desire and her concern. "Tell me lover."
"It would seem the Darkspawn are on the move, or were at least until they all decided to stop for a nap!" The last words spat out as his anger spiked.
"And you believe Grace had something to do with that?"
"You have a better suggestion?"
"No; not really, but I would listen to her explanation before you start yelling. You two have a habit of rubbing each other the wrong way when you are scared."
"I'm not scared, I'm angry." He muttered.
"Because you're scared lover. You can't fool me. Now, I think Rivka and Aryeh would like to spend some time with their father!"
Duncan smiled and placed a kiss on her forehead before moving over to the cradles and picking up Rivka, whose eyes fixed on him gurgling happily as he kissed her. Sunshine picked up a sleepy Aryeh and they moved over to the sofa, Duncan leaning over to plant a kiss on his son's cheek. Rivka pressed her hands to his beard calling back his attention. Duncan spoke in a soft tone that captivated his daughter. "Now Rivka I want you to listen to me carefully." She squealed happily, rubbing her nose against his beard making Duncan laugh. "I know you will love you sister very much; but please don't keep running off into trouble like she does, or you will make your daddy a very sad man." He grumbled at the elbow in his ribs from Sunshine.
"Fine, well try not to get into too much trouble then." Rivka gave him a very serious look before falling forwards and rubbing her face against his, cooing happily to herself.
Nathaniel woke hearing Danforth cough politely outside of the tent. He felt Grace shift beside him, then settle once more into the warmth of his arms. Gently brushing aside the curls, he placed a soft kiss to her cheek. Even in sleep she turned her head seeking his lips. Nathaniel chuckled into the kiss making Grace's eyes open.
She smiled and cupped his cheek, her fingers caressing his jaw.
"How are you feeling?" He murmured. Grace simply snuggled against him; pressing her lips to his throat, Nathaniel letting out a slight moan. He pulled back and cupped her cheek as her face clouded with pain. "Grace?" Her eyes were filled with such sadness and fear it made his heart ache. "You're safe Grace." The look she gave him left him in no doubt that she disagreed with him. Nathaniel was unnerved by her silence and wondered if she was still in shock. He helped her to dress; an exhaustion weighing down on her, despite her seemingly restful sleep. Nathaniel pulled her close once her armour was buckled. "Last night ... was amazing. I don't know where we go from here, but I wanted you to know that."
Grace softly kissed his lips, drawing him into a lingering kiss that neither wanted to break from.
"Do you think you can walk?"
Grace nodded; her hand clasping his, her fingers interlinking with his own.
Nathaniel flushed and kissed her again before pulling on his clothes.
They ate a quick breakfast. Grace was expecting some kind of comment from Rajack at least about what had happened between her and Nathaniel, but none came. When they were packed Grace called haste into being around them, they needed to get back to the Keep and fast. The landscape seemed to fly passed them, but they weren't paying attention, the horror of what they had seen and experienced in the mines consumed them. The light of day did not seem to help and their shock fell on them anew as they thought of what the future held.
Entering the Keep Nathaniel was startled to realise their group was the last to return and wondered how long they had been underground.
Duncan glanced up startled by their appearance. The speech he had prepared to give Grace slipped from his memory. Their armour was bloody; they had all obviously sustained injury and looked as though they were in shock. "What in the Void!" Duncan looked to Nathaniel.
"We have a problem Commander." Nathaniel cleared his throat, his words sounding shaky even to him.
"Karl, Anders." Both mages were already moving forward their healing magic flaring before they had reached them. The other Wardens moved forward helping their brothers to remove their battered armour, leaving Grace to Alistair and Zevran.
Zevran caught Grace's wince as he unbuckled the armour covering her chest, his eyes widening at the state of her tunic. Alistair tilted her chin to face him and froze at the pain in her eyes. Zevran gently turned her from the others; opening her tunic and checking the wound was healed, wincing at the dark bruising. "What did you walk into this time my sweet?" He felt her shudder before she buried her face against his shoulder.
Anders moved to Duncan. "They are all in shock; whatever happened has disturbed them deeply."
"Do any of you feel up to talking about what happened?" Duncan kept his tone gentle.
Danforth wearily raised his head. "There was a horde; moving through the Deep Roads towards Orzammar we think, thousands of the blighted bastards. I've been to most Darkspawn holes, but I've never seen anything like it."
Rajack cracked his neck. "Yeh; that was a whole mess of crap down there."
Nathaniel slowly ran his fingers across his brow, the pressure helping to ease the tension a little. "We were in a tight spot Commander. We hit a dead end, there was no way out."
Duncan saw the pain and guilt on his face and glanced to Grace who was ashen and shivering; the echoes of the taint tugging at her, Zevran and Alistair gently rubbing her arms trying to transfer some warmth. "How did you escape?" No-one spoke. Grace fixed her gaze on the floor and kept it there. The Wardens did likewise, shifting uncomfortably. "Nathaniel." Duncan's tone was firm, commanding.
Nathaniel glanced to Grace who seemed to feel his look and raised her eyes. She gave an almost imperceptible nod and withdrew into herself. Nathaniel gave a deep sigh before turning to Duncan, forcing himself to speak the words he knew his Commander would not want to hear. "If Grace hadn't taken the action she did, none of us would have survived."
Grace leaned against Zevran; willing her body to faint, do anything other than face her father. She was rewarded with a fierce pain in her chest, a sudden inability to breathe and a weakness that took her legs from beneath her. She felt herself cradled by Alistair and Zevran, Nathaniel sinking to his knees beside her, clasping her hand. She felt the flush of Anders magic and gave a shuddering sigh as her breathing eased. Grace closed her eyes; forced herself to calm, it had been a long time since she had experienced a panic attack.
Duncan stared at his daughter feeling his own panic. He could only imagine what it must have felt like to link with an entire horde. "The five of you should rest. We can talk more later." Duncan gently clasped Grace's arm, her eyes guarded as she glanced up. "Grace, you're home now. You're safe."