Soul Cairn Part 1
"I never knew she had a set up like this. She was deep into necromancy, she taught me everything I know, but she must've set years just collecting these components," Serana still couldn't believe the massive undiscovered portion of the castle. It seemed her mother had more secrets than she had initially thought. And she was smarter than Serana had given her credit for.
Max's impressed expression demonstrated his agreement.
"Where does one get gargoyles like that? Those would be quite the conversation piece. I think I'd like a few at my estate,” Max mused.
Serana giggled, it seemed to lighten the mood.
Max and Serana gathered the ingredients together and double checked that they were correctly measured and placed them in the brazier.
They watched anxiously as the moon dial shifted. It began to turn a cosmic purple as stairs emerged from the dial. They attached at the top of the balcony and suddenly the gap in the railing made sense. Serana could feel Max's apprehension radiating from his body as he looked upon the entrance to the Soul Cairn.
Serana looked at him and folded her arms.
"Last chance to turn back," She wheedled.
Max smiled at her and shook his head.
"Too late for that. Besides, I'd probably get lost in that maze of castle trying to find my way back."
He took a staggering breath and began forward into the purple abyss. As he stepped into the glow, he felt what he could only compare to lightning zap him. The wind was knocked from his lungs as he crumpled against the stairs. He felt something within him ebb away as the shock vibrated his body to the bone. He could faintly hear Serana cry out his name in surprise. Max was blown back to the top of the stairs and felt the stone stairs dig into his back. He breathed heavily, trying to recover. Serana knelt beside him, her face concerned.
"Are you okay?"
Max blinked a few times. "Yeah, I will be."
"That must've hurt," Serana said, her expression was an empathizing wince.
Max nodded weakly. His head still felt swimmy and his surroundings were a bit blurry. He could see Serana contemplating something.
"I should have expected that, sorry," she apologized.
Max looked up at her in question.
"Should have known what?"
Serana looked at him meekly, "It's hard to describe. The Soul Cairn is hungry…for lack of a better word. It's trying to take your life essence," She looked down for a moment, collecting her thoughts.
Max's eyes widened as he breathed heavily and shakily returned to his feet.
"So, I can't go in?"
"There might be, but you're not going to like it."
Max visibly grimaced, his hand involuntarily began to stroke his beard. He turned towards the purple glow and stared.
"What's that?" he asked without expression.
"Vampires aren't counted among the living. I could probably go through there without a problem."
"So you're saying I should become one as well?" Max said without looking back. His voice deeper than usual, as if he were disappointed.
Serana moved beside him, her face regretful. "Not your first choice."
Max said nothing and continued to stare into the Cairn entrance. He finally spoke after a few tense moments.
"What other choice do I have?" he said, rather hopelessly.
Serana frowned and looked away from him for a moment.
Her voice sounded sad as she spoke, "We could just…pay the toll."
Max finally looked at her, his brow knitted together in question.
"It wants a soul, so we give it one," she paused and closed her eyes for a moment, "Yours."
Max got the feeling she didn't like either idea. The second one was particularly difficult for her, he gathered that it didn't have to do with him.
"Wouldn't that kill me?"
Serana shook her head, "My mother taught me a trick or two. I could partially soul trap you and offer it to the Ideal Masters. It might be enough to satisfy them."
"It would make you a bit weaker when we travel, but we might be able to fix that once we're inside. Maybe."
Max's brow divided, showing he was considering it.
"Those are my only options, then?" Max asked.
"I'm sorry. I wish I knew a better way." Serana said regretfully.
Serana placed a hand on his shoulder pauldron, he watched her hand with a peculiar expression she couldn't quite place. His expression was soft when looked up at her as she spoke.
"Just know that…whatever you choose. I won't think less of you, Max. Some things just have to be done," Serana looked down for a moment, "I know that better than anybody," She said sadly.
Max knew something of what she meant by that. Whatever Francois willingly did to protect her, it wasn't pleasant. Perhaps it was a soul trap. That would explain her behavior when she presented the option. But Max sensed there was something more. Something she repressed deep within her. She wanted to get it off her shoulders, but she either too afraid or ashamed.
"Seeing as a peaceful afterlife isn't an option for me. You might as well soul trap me,” Max said, trying to sound unconcerned about it.
Serana looked at him with a conflicted expression.
"Are you sure? I'm willing to do it, but you need to think it through."
"You'll remain mortal, but you'll find yourself weakened in the Soul Cairn."
Max removed his left gauntlet and looked at his wounded hand. Serana cringed at the sight, but she felt no lust to tear open the wound and suck his blood like she used to. She had gotten much stronger since they first met. She had yet to feast in his company. It didn't stop her from feeling guilty about his unknowing sacrifice to free her. He never expressed regret for it, and so she knew that whatever choice he made, she would do it for him.
"I guess I don't truly know. I've been through enough pain and torture that I doubt having part of my soul taken would make any difference," He said with a shrug.
"You've proven to me that not all vampires are mindless blood hunters, but I'm not sure that becoming the very thing I am trying to stop is the answer. Eternity is a long time."
Serana nodded, understanding his struggle. She didn't particularly like his indifference about soul trapping, but when the other choice was an eternity as a monster, she would be considering it too.
Max shoved himself from the railing and faced her.
"I'm ready," He said firmly, meeting her eyes with determination. She didn't detect any distrust.
"I know this is difficult," Serana said understandingly, "I hope you trust me," She said sheepishly. She looked up into his eyes as she said, "I'd never do anything that could hurt you."
Max's gaze showed he was unafraid.
"I know. I trust you. Completely."
Serana felt the effects of a blush, knowing very well her undead skin wouldn't display it. She took a deep breath and hid her flattered expression.
"Let's not waste any time then," She said, doing her best to sound serious again.
"I promise to make this as painless as possible. Hold still."
Serana summoned a magic to her palms and saw that Max standing perfectly tranquil. He never understood his draw to powerful women, but something about Serana and her magic amused him beyond a normal level. He kept his mind in check by reminding himself that the magic she was summoning was about to leech part of his soul. That kept him sober.
Serana summoned a soul trap spell to her right hand and moved a few steps closer to Max, about arm’s length away. She reached out and placed her palm on his chest. She sadly noted how warm was and how firm his chest felt. She remembered how sexy it had looked earlier.
Focus, Serana. You're about to take part of his soul, don't muck it up!
Serana felt part of his life force ebb from his body and off into the purple void.
Max didn't appear fazed in the least.
"Off to meet your mother, then?"
Serana smiled and nodded.
The Soul Cairn was about as miserable and foreboding as Max had expected. It made him shudder at the thought of spending eternity here. Valerica was brave to have spent goodness knows how long here.
Max noted the lack of life here, the dead brush and dim light. It was the exact opposite of Sovngarde. He was pretty well traveled to have seen two afterlives in his time.
It was tough to see with the shadows and the numerous stone remains of dwellings and strongholds. In the distance, Max saw what looked like a fortress ahead with two columns of light shining straight up into the void. Something told him that was the place they needed to get to. He noticed lightning striking all over the place. It was amusing, but wearing his armor, it also made him nervous.
As they traveled along, they looked sadly at the trapped spirits. They all had gone mad from spending an eternity here. It made Max nervous that he might have to as well. He somewhat regretted not taking the vampire option instead.
They made their way what looked like a path, until finally they came to the entrance of the ancient-looking stronghold. The columns that held up the entrance were pitch black, as well as the rest of the stone. The piles of bones that lie next to the columns were unnerving. A woman's voice startled them.
"Maker…It can't be. Serana?!" A woman that looked strikingly similar to Serana walked out from the columns. It had to be Valerica.
She kept repeating 'it can't be' to herself as she moved out towards them.
Serana's mouth hung agape as she called out to Valerica.
"Mother! Is that you? I can't believe it!" she said in exasperation. She sounded relieved and emotional all at once.
Serana tried to move forward to hug Valerica but was stopped by some sort of magical barrier.
"What is this? How do we," Serana was cut off by her mother.
"Serana? What are you doing here? Where's your father?"
Valerica looked worried. Her features were pale like Serana's but she was obviously older. Her hair was tied back into two buns on each side of her head. Both were tied with a gold ribbon to secure them in place. She too, was dressed like she was from a different time entirely. Her outfit was similar and her eyes glowed just as Serana's did. She cast her hands out from her side in surprise. She seemed afraid of Harkon by her behavior, but perhaps it was fear for her daughter.
"He doesn't know we're here, but I don't have time to explain everything!"
Valerica's gaze fell downward for a moment.
"I must have failed then," she said disappointedly, "Harkon's found a way to decipher the prophecy, hasn't he?"
Max could easily sense the hostile relationship between Harkon and his wife, she treated him as an enemy outside her circle, not as her estranged husband.
"No, you've got it all wrong. We're here to stop him…to make everything right!" Serana sounded as if she were pleading. Max could Serana's course of action was against her mother's wishes.
Valerica finally looked at Max as though he had an extra eye or limb.
"Wait a moment…you've brought a stranger here?" Valerica sounded furious.
"Have you lost your mind?" Valerica exclaimed, her voice surprisingly good at a scolding tone.
"No you don’t," Serana pleaded, but her mother cut her off.
"You," she said jabbing a long, manicured nail in Max's direction.
"I would speak with you." She ordered.
Max resisted the urge to say something smart. He simply stepped forward and steeled his features.
Valerica crossed her arms, "So how has it come to pass that a vampire hunter is in the company of my daughter?"
Max hid how impressed he was. She's good.
"It pains me to think you'd travel with Serana under the guise of her protector in an effort to hunt me down."
You give yourself too much credit, vampire.
"This is no ruse. I wish to keep her safe," Max said firmly, realizing how difficult it was to believe.
Valerica scoffed, "Coming from one who murders vampires as a trade, I find it hard to believe your intentions are noble."
Max didn't budge, he simply let her continue, his arms crossed and his fingers clenching out of sight.
"Serana has sacrificed everything to prevent Harkon from completing the prophecy. I would have expected her to explain that to you."
"That's why we're here. For the Elder Scroll," Max said simply.
Valerica appeared to take it as him implying she cared nothing for her daughter.
"You think I'd have the audacity to place my daughter in that tomb for the protection of her Elder Scroll alone?"
Max saw where this was going.
"The scrolls are merely a means to an end. The key to the Tyranny of the Sun is Serana herself."
Max felt his insides drop to his feet. This explained why she asked him to protect her. If he had any semblance of respect for Harkon before, he hated him all the more now. He took a steadying breath to hide his anger, but it did not go unnoticed by Valerica.
"What do you mean?"
Valerica appeared to relent slightly, assuming a more relaxed pose.
"When I fled Castle Volkihar, I fled with two Elder Scrolls," She began to pace and animate her words with hand motions.
"The scroll I presume you found with Serana speaks of Auriel and his arcane weapon, Auriel's Bow," Valerica paced around some more, until she stopped at Max and placed a hand on the sword secured to her belt.
"The second declares that the blood of the Coldharbor's Daughter will blind the eye of the Dragon."
Also not good.
"What does that mean for Serana?"
Valerica rested a hands on her hips.
"Like myself, Serana was a human once. We were devout followers of Lord Molag Bol."
Max knew this, but he let her continue.
"Tradition dictates females be offered to Molag Bol on his summoning day. Few survive the ordeal."
Max seemed to get the gist of what 'females being offered' meant and it didn't sound pretty. He subtly glanced in Serana's direction.
"Those that do, emerge as a pure-blooded vampire," Valerica continued, "We call such confluences the 'Daughters of Coldharbor'."
"So the Tyranny of the Sun requires Serana's blood?" Max asked.
"Now you're beginning to see why I wanted to protect Serana, and why I've kept the other Elder Scroll as far from her as possible." Valerica said, her voice implied that she wished such measures were not needed. She cast a longing glance at her daughter and then returned her gaze to Max.
Max's eyes narrowed at that.
"Are you saying Harkon means to kill her? His own daughter?"
Max's anger seemed to please Valerica ever so slightly. She was obviously gauging his motives since she first laid eyes on him. Now, she was trying to persuade him to help, if that was not already his intent.
"If Harkon obtained Auriel's Bow and Serana's blood was used to taint the weapon, the Tyranny of the Sun would be complete." Valerica removed one hand from her hip and gripped the hilt of her sword in anguish, her words growing more hostile.
"In his eyes, she'd be dying for the good of all vampires," Valerica's voice filled with malice.
Max kept his voice from getting angry while remaining firm and convincing.
"I would never allow that to happen."
Valerica wasn't impressed. "And how exactly do you plan on stopping him?" she challenged.
"You seem to know how to go about that. We'll need your help."
"Weren't you listening?" Valerica chastised, "Like Serana, I am a pure-blooded vampire. My presence in Tamriel is as dangerous as hers."
Max was getting sick of this woman's derogatory tone.
"And Serana's opinion in this?"
Valerica glared at him coldly with her glowing eyes, "You care nothing for Serana or our plight," She stated simply as if she knew, "Whether or not you've become one of us to survive the Soul Cairn, you're still a vampire hunter at heart."
Valerica wouldn't stop at that, she pointed her long nailed finger at Max again.
"You're here because we're abominations in your mind. Evil creatures that need to be destroyed."
Max now let his glare bore into the vampire. Her attempts at forcing Serana from his protection would not work on him. He knew he was the best in all of Skyrim for the duty.
"Serana believes in me, why won't you?"
Valerica appeared open to hearing her daughter's input. She turned her attention to her daughter.
"Serana?" she said. "This stranger aligns himself with those that would hunt you down and slay you like an animal, yet I should entrust you to him?" Valerica sounded concerned like any caring mother would, it served to cool Max's rising temper. She was only trying to protect Serana.
Serana was put on the spot and back into the conversation. She had sat quietly while her mother put Max through the verbal ringer. She knew each of her mother's questions were to protect her. She was gauging Max's motives, but it was unfair. There was a moment or two where she had slight doubts about Max's motives, but now she felt guilty for ever letting that cross her mind.
Serana looked at Max briefly before responding, she couldn't help but let her lingering anger towards her mother spill out, especially with the way she treated her and Max.
"This 'stranger' has done more for me in the brief time that I've known him than you've done in centuries!"
Valerica crossed her arms and spat back at her daughter, "How dare you! I gave up everything I cared about to protect you from that fanatic you call a father!"
Serana's anger subsided a little, but she wouldn't let her mother win this time.
"Yes, he's a fanatic…he's changed. But he's still my father. Why can't you understand how that makes me feel?" Serana tried her best to make her mother understand her conflict.
"Oh, Serana," her mother said morbidly, "If you'd only open your eyes."
She cast her hands down in frustration.
"The moment your father discovers your role in the prophecy, that he needs your blood, you'd be in terrible danger."
Serana took in a deep breath, "So to protect me you decided to shut me away from everything I cared about?" Serana's face fell, "You let Francois sacrifice his life for me?" Serana breathed for a moment, then glared back at her mother.
"You never asked me if hiding me in that tomb was the best course of action, you just expected me to follow you blindly," Serana gripped the hilt of the Blade of Woe on her belt, it helped her harness her rage.
"Both of you were obsessed with your own paths. Your motivations might have been different, but in the end, I'm still just a pawn to you, too."
Max felt a little sorry for Valerica. He was never a parent, but Valerica's actions were for the greater good, she just seemed to take things too far. Max now understood Serana's rage and her curiosity about his parents. She wanted to know if his experience had been different. Serana just wanted her family back together, but her parents never asked for her opinion in her own life. He knew that becoming a vampire wasn't her choice either, she didn't exactly like being a 'monster'.
"I want us to be a family again. But I don't know if we can ever have that." Serana said sadly, she sounded tired of trying to make things work. Her parents were simply an unstoppable force against an immovable object, and Serana was stuck in the middle.
"Maybe we don't deserve that kind of happiness. Maybe it isn't for us," Serana mused sadly.
Max wanted to comfort her more than anything, but he decided it best to let things happen, at least for the moment. Max could see the sadness in Valerica's face.
Determination returned to Serana's voice as she spoke.
"But we have to stop him. Before he goes too far. And to do that, we need the Elder Scroll."
Valerica finally responded, "I didn't know, Serana. I didn't see…I've allowed my hatred of your father to estrange us for too long. Forgive me," She apologized. "If you want the Elder Scroll, you can have it."
Valerica turned sharply on her heels to face Max. He knew another tongue-lashing was in order.
"Your intentions are still somewhat unclear to me," she looked Max up and down and then to her daughter.
"But for Serana's sake, I'll assist you in any way that I can."
Max decided to go for the obvious.
"Where is the Elder Scroll you mentioned?"
Valerica crossed her arms, "Yes, I've kept it safe ever since I arrived here. Fortunately you're in a position to breach the barrier that surrounds these ruins," She said motioning to the barrier before her.
"Just tell me what we need to do."
"You need to locate the tallest of the rocky spires that surround these ruins. At their bases, the barrier's energy is being drawn from unfortunate souls who have been exiled here."
Max gave the barrier a displeased look as he realized part of his soul was contributing to the barrier. The sooner he could get out of here the better.
"Destroy the Keepers that are tending them, and it should bring the barrier down."
Max nodded. "We'll return when that is done."
Valerica held her hand up to stop them.
"One more word of warning. There's a dragon that calls himself Durnehviir roaming the Cairn. Be wary of him. The Ideal Masters have charged him with overseeing the Keepers, and will undoubtedly intervene if you're perceived as a threat."
Max nodded. It seemed he couldn't escape dragons no matter where he went.
As they turned to leave he heard. "Be careful, and keep my daughter safe."
A while down the road towards a glowing spire, Serana stopped Max.
"What is it?" he asked.
"I'm sorry about that."
"My mother and well, about me," Serana explained.
"It's fine. Your mother was only protecting you, as I would hope. As for the part about Harkon needing you to fulfill the prophecy…I could understand why wouldn't want to share that knowledge with me. I might've killed you for all you knew."
Serana raised a brow. "Would you have?"
Max shrugged, "No, probably not. Even before I really knew you, your assistance has brought us much further than we would have on our own."
Max decided to turn the question on its head.
"When you first woke up, I'll bet you were hungry. I'm a pretty big guy, I bet I would have made a nice snack," Max prodded, hoping to lighten the mood.
"Why would you say that?" Serana said, she sounded and looked hurt.
That caught Max off guard.
"I was only kidding. I was surprised you were so…docile."
Serana looked away. "I guess I'm not a very good vampire."
"That's not a bad thing," Max tried, "I'm not a very good werewolf. We're natural enemies and yet here we are."
"I know. This shouldn't be happening," Serana said, shaking her head. She began to pace. Max wondered what 'this' was, but he said nothing.
"I never wanted to become a vampire. Especially in the way I did, but I never got a choice," Serana began to fight angry tears.
Serana could hear the clanking of armor behind her but she didn't pay any attention. A loud crack of a lightning struck nearby. Serana gathered all of her strength to talk about something she had not shared before. But when she laid eyes on Max, he was shattering peculiar looking skeletons without a weapon. They posed no real threat to him as their swings were so weak, Max caught one by the sword arm and shouted the skeleton apart.
The next skeleton swung at him. Max ducked the swing, coming up with an uppercut that sent the skull flying straight up into the air. Playfully, Max caught the skull and threw it into the skeleton archer ten yards away. He cackled playfully at the skeletons as if it were a game.
Serana rolled her eyes. Men.
Max turned around to her with a stoic expression, as if his toying with the strange skeletons didn't happen. He moved over towards her, his expression changed suddenly to one of surprise. He thumped himself on the chest and let out a raspy cough.
Serana realized why the incredibly fit Nord was having trouble breathing, his stamina was drained.
"Max, sit down," Serana said, motioning towards a knee high rock right by the embankment of the cut out path.
Max shook his head. "I'm fine."
Serana had no patience for his prideful toughness.
"Max, you are going to sit down. And we are going to talk," Serana said firmly, pushing the thick man towards the rocks.
Max seemed surprised if not impressed by her firmness, but he didn't protest.
He went over and sat down, taking the torso of his armor off, revealing a body that filled every inch of the ebony armor. He wore a comfortable cotton shirt underneath that was soaked with sweat.
Max rested one elbow on his knee and his head on his fist.
"So…You never wanted to be a vampire. Go on," He urged, leaning back slightly.
Serana blinked and looked away, trying to distract herself from that fascinating bulk. She swallowed and regained her train of thought.
"I don't want to need human… or any type of blood for that matter. I was always different. I was one of the youngest pure-blooded vampires, so things got lonely. Everyone was always out hunting and I never felt the appeal. I just wanted to be normal again. I didn't want to hide for the rest of my existence."
Max nodded and waited for her to go on.
"Do you wish you would have stayed in the era that you were born in? I mean, instead of being in that tomb for who knows how long?"
Serana’s face contorted, she seemed to cycle through just about every emotion without settling on one.
"Well, yes and no," she trailed off, trying to think of way to phrase things.
"I miss my old friends from before… but they all died even before I was put in the tomb. I miss Francois," Serana said, letting the emotion pass.
"But no matter if I was there or here, I would still be running from my father, and fighting his plans. In both times, my family was torn apart. Besides, now I don't feel so alone… like I once did." Serana met Max's wise brown eyes.
"I have you," Serana said, her voice nearly quavered at the thought of how he might react to what she said.
"Ah, I'm not that special," Max dismissed with a wave.
Serana crossed her arms.
"Take the compliment, will you?”
Serana moved closer to Max.
"I meant what I said back there. You have done more for me than anyone ever has."
Max smiled at that. "I appreciate it. Though to say more than anyone is a stretch. We both know Francois has done more than I."
Serana's eyes watered slightly.
"I suppose you're right, but still…thank you, Max."
Max nodded. "Of course."
Serana turned away from him and wiped her eyes.
Maker he's hard to thank.
Serana felt a comforting hand on her shoulder, it startled her how warm it was.
She turned around to see Max with an apologetic look on his face.
"Don't apologize," Serana said, her voice quivering a little, "You're right. He's gone and I need to accept that."
Max frowned sadly at that. "You can still mourn him."
Serana realized she hadn't mourned her first love, but she didn't want to cry in front of Max. Especially since he looked like he was about to hug her. While part of her…okay, most of her welcomed the idea, she did not want to show such weakness.
Serana finally nodded after collecting herself, "I know, but I don't have time right now. I have to stop Harkon."
Max nodded in understanding.
"To the spire then?" Max asked, nodding towards the spire in the distance.
Serana smiled, "To the spire."
Max put his armor on while Serana covertly watched.
While Francois had endearing features and impressive magic, he was a boy, bordering on manhood.
Maximus on the other hand, was the epitome of manliness, fully in his prime. He was the Nord every girl want and every girl's father sought to betroth her to. And he was her protector and friend.
Max turned to Serana as if he sensed her watching him. His expression didn't show any signs that he did, though. His face was filled with grit and determination.
"Serana," he said, getting her attention, "You're mother may worry, but Harkon will not lay a finger on you. I swear it," With that declaration, Max slid Rahgot over his head and drew his weapon, marching off towards the spire.
Serana smiled at that, she felt a blush run up her body as well. She knew she was safe. Maybe, after Francois didn't plague her mind, Serana would pursue this sought after Nord she crushed on. Serana heard the unmistakable shout of the Dragonborn and she realized she had better stop lagging behind.