As they rode for Pine Forest Serana thought back on her talk with Aela. It didn't make any sense why Hircine would condone turning Max from his wolf blood. The fact that most of the exchange between Serana and the late wife of the last dragonborn was strictly between the two of them most likely meant that Hiricine was aware of the exchange. Serana wasn't sure how that was possible, considering Aela was a servant to the Daedra. Especially when Serana considered Aela's area of expertise was archery, not any sort of magic. How was it possible for her to separate them from the Daedra? Perhaps what Serana saw was Hiricine's doing. Perhaps her mother would know what Serana had witnessed. Serana doubted she would see her mother through the duration of this quest against her father, or ever for that matter. She knew she must seek help elsewhere.
Aela was trying to protect Max, Serana knew this. The man accompanying her and aiding her in defying her mad father had done so without question or fear. This was the least she could do.
"Serana?" Max called from a horse length ahead of her.
"I've been wondering, how did your father get so many vampires to his side? Since you're all pureblood vampires, how do you decide who leads?"
Serana absorbed his question for a moment.
"Well, you could argue that the most manipulative and power hungry of us wins and you wouldn't be wrong. Technically, it is decided through who has been there the longest. Since my family seized Volkihar from its original owners and have been noble vampires the longest, my father was named Lord."
Max stroked his beard thoughtfully and hummed in amusement.
"For some reason I was picturing an epic battle between vampire demons," Max said with a smirk.
Serana laughed silently, "That's happened before. A few of my father's underlings have challenged his authority, as is their right. Things get quite messy."
Max gave her an unimpressed look. "I've seen your great hall. More blood wouldn't make much of a difference."
Serana laughed. "Sadly, that is true."
Max gave her a peculiar look.
"What?" she asked defensively.
"You know, for being a vampire for so long, I'm surprised you're still troubled by it. I guess what I mean is, why become one in the first place…Was it…"
"My choice?" Serana cut in, her voice had an edge to it.
Max said nothing, but looked a little concerned.
"It wasn't, that much is obvious isn't it?" she said sharply.
Max nodded carefully, again electing to stay silent.
"I never had a choice. I've been at the center of this prophecy ever since I came of age. I was my parents' pawn to use against one another. Now it's up to me to stop them from destroying Tamriel. I never wanted this," Serana said, her eyes growing misty. It was hard to suppress the sudden rush of emotion.
Max still remained silent, but his eyes looked empathetic. It struck her.
"You would know all about that wouldn't you? It seems like fate that we crossed paths, but I'm past believing that. My destiny was set the moment I was born. My parents needed a child for their own selfish reasons."
Max shrugged, attempting to dissuade her. "You don't know that. Your mother has done a lot to keep you safe."
Serana gave him a grave look. "That's just her way of making up for what they put me through."
Max gave her a wary look, unsure of what she meant.
"What exactly are you talking about?"
Serana was looking at him, but her eyes were distant.
"The ritual that made me what I am…It was very demeaning."
Max's face was empathetic. "I'm sorry."
Serana gave him a somewhat disgusted look, "What kind of parents force their children to become a twisted Daedra's tribute," Serana's voice began to shake along with her body as she tried to repress the memory.
Max briskly turned his horse around to come along side hers. He placed a hand on her shoulder comfortingly.
"You don't have to talk about this," he assured her.
Serana looked up at him and felt slightly better, his soft gaze was surprisingly soothing.
"Thank you," Serana said gratefully.
Max smiled at her. "Anytime. Your parents might be bad people, but somehow you turned out alright."
Serana laughed in spite of her raw emotional pain. Something occurred to her at that moment.
"I know my mother is stuck in the Soul Cairn, Max. You didn't have to spare my feelings."
Max gave her an unsure look.
"I was going to tell you, I just figured you didn't need the distraction."
Serana shrugged. "I'm used to it. Besides, it serves her right for doing this to me," she realized how hypocritical her words sounded, especially with the secret she kept from him.
Max slowed Shadowmere's pace so that they were trotting side by side. They were getting close to the grove.
"Aren't you worried about what Dexion said?"
Max didn't look at her directly. "What about it?"
Serana gave him a withering look. "Don't be coy. You could go blind!"
Max gave her an uninterested look. "It will be fine."
Serana sighed bitterly. They were drawing closer to the grove and she continued to worry about the side effects of reading an Elder Scroll. She was surprised at how little this generation knew about them, it seemed they knew less than hers had. Serana didn't know how that was possible, but she knew a lot can go wrong in a short amount of time, let alone hundreds of years.
Shadowmere slowed ahead of her and she found her horse doing the same as well. After some walking up the steep trails they spotted a small, ordinary looking cave entrance. The fact that it was at the base of a very tall and jagged mountain made it seem more plausible as a hiding place of ancient powers.
When they first entered, the glade was rather dark and gloomy. Fallen trees lined the pathway and moss grew rampant.
Serana pursed her lips as she walked alongside Max, both holding their weapons in hand.
"Hmmm. Not very impressive, is it?" she said skeptically.
Max shook his head.
Serana twirled her knife in her hand as she continued down the decrepit path.
"If this ends up being a wasted trip, Dexion and I are going to have some words when we get back," She said impatiently.
Max chortled in surprise. "What happened to being concerned for his health?"
Serana smirked. "Mere pleasantries. Sometimes being nice isn't such a bad idea."
Max grunted and muttered something under his breath.
The inner part of the glade was surprisingly well lit by the sunlight that streamed in from the cracks in the rocky ceiling. The glade was something to behold. The waterfall directly across the way was mesmerizing.
The deeper they got the sunlight that shone in seemed almost divine as it illuminated the room. A lazy brook cut through the rocks with a peaceful trickling sound. Pine trees stood tall and strong among the mossy rocks and patches of grass. Even flowers sprouted up in some spots. It was quite the sight.
As they made their way down what seemed to be a man made path, Serana and Max both gawked at their surroundings.
"Wow, look at this place," Serana said in wonder, "No one's been here in centuries. I doubt there's any other place like it in Skyrim. It's beautiful."
Max was admiring the awestruck look on Serana's face. He had never seen her look this happy before.
"Yeah," He agreed, though Serana did not notice they weren't speaking of the same thing.
They continued to descend into what seemed like a whole other world. They noticed butterflies hovering around in small clusters. This place was like something out of a dream.
They passed a small cherry blossom tree as they made their way to the telltale column of light that shone from above. They spotted pools of water near the cherry blossom that bubbled for some reason adding more to the wonder. They had never seen anything quite like this paradise.
All of this was great, but it made Max suspicious. It was too peaceful for the seasoned warrior. His eyes darted around the room warily.
Serana pointed towards ancient looking stone columns with cross beams resting atop them that lead to the center of the glade. It was astounding they had stayed standing for so long. Everything was so pristine it was hard to believe it was real.
As they stepped into the ankle deep water that ran beneath the oblong columns, Max and Serana were both surprised to discover the water was warm and refreshing. There was something otherworldly at work here, Max was convinced.
A circular stone island at the center of the glade lead to a peculiar looking statue that was about chest height. The ancient sculpture was a U shaped slab of stone that held a stone circle. As they got closer, Max spotted a draw knife floating…yes, floating within it's midst. Max cautiously grabbed the draw knife and looked about for the appropriate tree. The bubbling pools made an eerie mist around them as they peered around.
"Well, we have the knife…Now all we need to do is track down one of those Canticle trees," Serana said with her hands on her hips in thought.
Max gave her an appreciative look, "I'm glad one of us was paying attention to Dexion's drabble."
Serana laughed pleasantly. She moved over to a tree and inspected it.
"This looks like one," She said pointing to what Max had thought was a cherry blossom tree.
He moved over and began to gently rasp a piece of bark from the ancient tree, almost feeling bad in doing so.
The bark smelled sweet and sappy, it was a small wonder that the ancestor moths liked it so much.
"Hope the moths like that bark as Dexion said they would," Serana said skeptically.
Max gave her an intrigued look. "And here I thought you and Dexion were getting along famously."
Serana snorted. "It's not that I don't like the old man, I'm just naturally suspicious. Especially when it comes to rituals."
Max shrugged and continued looking for moths.
He silently shook his head at how ridiculous that sounded. To save Skyrim from certain doom he had to go butterfly catching.
Max spotted a swarm and moved over to it. The moths instantly surrounded him. He wore an uncomfortable look on his face as he looked at Serana.
She chuckled and attempted to cover it up modestly with her hand.
"Look at them… they've definitely taken a liking to you," She said jovially, bordering on flirtation.
"It tickles." Max said stiffly, knowing how childish he sounded.
Serana laughed at his plight, but suddenly stopped and stared at him.
"Unless I'm seeing things, you're starting to…glimmer."
Max rolled his eyes at her.
"Stop it," he said, not in the mood for teasing.
Serana laughed lightly. "No, I'm serious."
Max shrugged, "I guess that means its working. How many do you suppose I need?"
Serana shrugged, "Let's see how many we can get to follow you."
Max noticed her giving him a particular look, the same look he'd been giving her in secret. It was growing tough to deny his feelings for Serana. Her personality was refreshing and she was very easy to talk with…not mention easy on the eyes. Maybe it was the fact that they were so dependent upon each other that they began to respect each other to the point of attraction. Something about her strength and bravery made her damn near irresistible, but Max knew that even if he did care for Serana in a romantic way, it was dangerous to do so. They were natural enemies united in a cause that was quite literally a matter of life and death. There was also no guarantee that they would both survive this.
Max truly wanted to help Serana find peace and stop her father, but he knew better than to hope that there would be a peaceful solution to all of this. Eventually, Max knew they would have to kill Harkon, the man was just too lost in his own desire to watch Skyrim burn. It was amazing Serana turned out the way she did.
Five more clusters of moths and Max was beginning to notice the shine too. Max never wanted to leave this place. It was so much like the afterlife. Maybe not Sovngarde, but something equally as peaceful.
Upon finding the final groups of moths Serana noticed something.
"Whoa! I think that might have been what we were waiting for." She said squinting at Max and his now nearly blinding glow. He looked the part of a god. The beam of light at the center of the glade had also intensified.
Max and Serana made their way back down to the beam. Max stood directly in the rays of light and looked at Serana expectantly.
Serana gave him an uneasy look, "Are you ready?"
Max shrugged, "Ready as I'll ever be."
She reluctantly pulled the Scrolls from her back and handed Max one of them.
"Nervous?" She hid her concern behind a sarcastic exterior. Max nodded, looking down at her from the slightly elevated spot he stood on. He looked immaculate standing there.
"I could never have made it this far without you," He said suddenly, unsure why he was confessing this. It wasn't as if he was going to die.
Serana smiled back, "Oh, I don't know about that. You probably would have stormed Castle Volkihar and the vampires would be slain by now."
Max shook his head, his face growing serious.
"This journey has taught me much about myself. I'm not dead inside anymore. I have something I haven't had in a long time," He said, holding the scrolls in his hands.
"What that?" Serana asked.
"Purpose. I have you to thank for that," He said with a smile.
Serana felt warmth inside her, it was like no feeling she'd had before. It was like a glow. She felt… alive. Before she could say anything or even react, Max had opened the scroll.
His eyes widened in wonder as he stared at the pages. He blinked as if staring into a bright light as the visions began to enter his head. A map of Skyrim began to appear before him, he grabbed the other scroll and looked at it, the image becoming ingrained in his mind. Rivers and mountains began to grow clearer. He wobbled a bit, but gained his balance again and looked at Serana blearily.
"Are you okay?" she asked, concerned. "Almost thought I lost you there…you went white as the snow."
Max nodded weakly, shaking his head a bit to clear the cobwebs.
"Don't worry, I'm fine," He said firmly, trying to convince himself he was fine.
"I never trusted those damn scrolls," Serana admitted, "Who knows what those things could have done to you…Just look at Dexion," She mused.
Max gave her a dubious look, "Well that's reassuring."
Serana gave him an apologetic look but returned to the topic at hand.
"What about Auriel's Bow? Do you know where we can find it?" Serana wasn't sure why she was acting so pushy. Maybe it was because she was trying to pretend that what Max had said hadn't happened, why, she didn't know. Now wasn't the time to be getting attached to her companion.
"It's in a place called Darkfall Cavern," Max wasn't sure how he knew that. He just…did.
"Then it's almost over." Serana said with relief. "We can finally put an end to this ridiculous prophecy."
"Where is this 'Darkfall Cave'?" she asked.
"The scrolls gave me its exact location," Max said.
Serana held out a hand in the direction of the exit.
"Then let's get going," She said.
As soon as the words were out of her mouth Serana saw Max fall to his knees, hands splayed on the ground, supporting his heaving torso. His breaths sounded panicked as he mumbled something to himself.
Serana felt a spike of fear rise through her.
The Last Dragonborn fell face down onto the ground, clearly unconscious.
Serana shook him a few times and called his name, hoping he would wake up, but he didn't. He was still breathing, but he did not show any signs of awareness though his eyes were wide open.
Serana began to panic herself, pacing around as she tried to figure out what to do. She knew she couldn't carry the burly warrior out of here, let alone lift him onto a horse. Maybe if she got the horses in here she would be able to prop him up on something.
She needed to get help, Dexion's help to be exact. Serana never felt so vulnerable in her life. Not because she was on her own, but because Max was so helpless.
She knew she couldn't get Shadowmere to cross that downed log that lead into the glade, nor would it support his weight. Serana mustered her willpower and began to drag Max.
After what felt like hours of dragging the surprisingly heavy Dragonborn, Serana sprinted to the entrance and grabbed Shadowmere's reins. The stallion obviously sensed her panic for he reared his head, resisting her attempt to lead him.
"Work with me!" Serana hissed at the undead horse. Much to her surprise, he obliged, as did her roan.
The horses followed her cautiously. Serana brought them so they were below the log. She tied Shadowmere to a nearby branch and moved up to log once more and found where she last left Max's still unmoving form. She summoned a ball of energy to her hand and held her breath as she attempted to lift him with her rather unpracticed telekinesis. Max floated mere inches from the ground but it was enough to bring him out over the log and slowly drop him onto his steed's back. It should work…in theory…
Max steadily lowered towards his steed's saddle. Serana felt her magicka begin to wane, so she lowered him with a sense of urgency. Max thudded into the saddle, Shadowmere tossed his head and sidestepped a little in surprise but did not shake his master off.
Serana let out a sigh of relief and headed down to the horses. She tied Max so that his arms and legs rested on opposite sides of the saddle, although it wasn't the most comfortable, it was the most secure. Serana didn't dare attempt to ride the stallion. He was much too raw for her mediocre riding skills.
She hopped onto her roan, taking hold of a rope she tied to Shadowmere's bridle and set off for Fort Dawnguard as quickly as she could. Serana knew very well that her father's underlings would be after her soon.
As she pressed on tirelessly, Serana sensed that someone was watching them. Something told her they weren't Max's assassins either. Serana squeezed her heels into her roan, pressing her as fast the thickly built mare would go. That was when Serana heard the hisses of vampires behind her. Serana could feel her mare slowly begin to tire.
It was time to make a decision. Serana looked back at Max as he bobbed about loosely on Shadowmere's back. Serana swore the stallion spoke to her, or perhaps it was her imagination, but a female voice spoke to her. “Leave him to me,” the words came to her mind silently.
Serana slowed her mare to a stop and whipped her around. She took a deep breath and dismounted her horse. She put Shadowmere's reins over his neck so as not to obstruct him. She gave the stallion a sharp slap to the rear and he stormed off into the woods. Serana could still feel that her magicka reserves were low. Sure, she could use her fancy knew armor to sneak up on them, but there were too many and they obviously smelled Max.
She felt time slow as she mustered her courage and prepared to fight a large onslaught of vampires. Serana knew the only way she could defeat them was to embrace the pure vampiric blood within her. As much as she hated that side of her, she would have to use it to protect Max.
Serana dug deep within herself and unleashed the anger at her father and even her mother. She felt something stir within her and suddenly a searing pain filled her insides as her body began to transform into a vampire lord. Her muscles began to grow as her body expanded. Wings protruded from her back with a painful surge. Slowly, Serana became the monster she hid deep within herself.
Serana felt the magicka return to her, she felt hungry and very powerful.
Serana turned into a cluster of bats and advanced on the attacking vampires. Throwing out a magicka drain life on them immediately. She summoned a gargoyle and set out on a melee rampage, taking advantage of the confusion. Serana cut down two vampires with ease, her razor sharp nails cutting their bodies to gory pieces. Serana reanimated the tattered corpses, hoping they would also aid to the pandemonium.
Serana cast an absorb health spell that surrounded her in a cloud of vicious bats. This pushed the group of vampires off of her and into the path of the murderous gargoyle. Eventually gargoyle had served its worth and disappeared.
Serana was left with a growing crowd of vampires. She had no idea where they were coming from, but she was throwing everything she had at them. Serana cast a mist form spell and took the time to regain health and take a count of her opponents. The tables were beginning to turn against her. Serana counted ten vampires and at least seven dead. She noticed that most of the ones she faced were only blooded vampires under the command of their pureblood masters.
The masters began to turn to lords themselves and headed in Serana's direction. Serana knew it was time to pray to the fates and hack away.
Serana grounded herself and began tearing at the lords viciously.
Three fell to her fangs and claws, but she was growing weak and noticed she was wounded.
Serana turned to bats and distanced herself from the two remaining lords and five blooded fiends. She launched herself at a fiend and took him down with her poisonous talons.
Serana grew more desperate and her technique began to falter. She was growing exhausted. From the corner of her eye, Serana swore she heard the sound of crunching brush beside her, it sounded different from the sounds of battle that surrounded her. Serana continued throwing as many spells as she could, slowly regaining strength. As Serana continued she spotted three werewolves aiding her fight against the other vampires. For a brief moment, she was filled with joy, for she swore it was Max at her side. Upon getting a better look, Serana realized that was not the case. When the battle concluded, the wolves that had come to her aid quickly left. She spotted Mjoll coming through the trees clad in her dwarven armor a few minutes later.
Mjoll was followed by two Nords. They looked strikingly similar to one another, as if they were twins. Serana swore she had read about these two in Max's journal. One of the twins led Shadowmere towards them.
Serana had returned to her human form, but she still felt the effects. She could smell her natural enemies as they stood before her, but they did not attack. The men behind Mjoll looked as though they were having a hard time containing themselves. Serana knew they were loyal to Max and obviously suspicious of her. It was comforting to see Mjoll in the midst however.
"Why are you in our woods with our unconscious Harbinger strapped to his saddle, vampire?" One of the men spoke, his voice gruff.
Serana swallowed once before speaking. She wasn't sure how much she should divulge to them. She decided she had little to lose at this point.
"Maximus and I were searching for a way to stop Harkon fomr blackening the sun. We found a way for him to read an Elder Scroll, but it seems some of the protections did not work fully….I…"
Mjoll looked concerned, "Will he survive?"
Serana shook her head, trying her best to stay standing. She was still swimming with her vampiric rage as well as adrenaline.
"I do not know. A Moth Priest helped us, and he has now turned blind. The effects could be permanent, but they could wear off…"
The other twin spoke, "What do you plan to do about this?" his tone was a little less hostile than the others.
"I was going to take Max to the Moth Priest," Serana said, the fact that she could very well die at their hands was in the forefront of her mind. She knew that both she and Max had to survive in order for them to find Auriel's Bow and protect it from her father. But if Max died, she would be forced to go into hiding again with the scrolls. The Dawnguard could not protect her, nor would they.
"Maximus will not go to this priest with you. He is too weak. We will take him Jorvaskrr where we can protect him. Bring your priest there," The growly twin said.
Serana was not going to accept that, not just yet.
"The last Harbinger died within Jorvaskrr's walls. Make sure it does not happen again," Serana's tone challenged the Companions.
One of them audibly growled, "Do you mock me, vampire?" The less irritable twin attempted the other while Mjoll stepped forward.
She placed a hand on Serana's shoulder.
"The last Harbinger did not have his oldest friend in his midst. I will guard him with my life, this I promise. Be safe and return quickly, Max needs you," Mjoll emplored
"Take Shadowmere, there's no faster horse in all of Skyrim."
Serana could see the twins had moved Max from his horse. The twins supported him with their shoulders,
A horrifying wail filled the air as everyone within earshot whirled to find the source.
It seemed Max had awoken. He struggled to stay standing. Trying to figure out where he was and why he could not see. He screamed out to whoever could hear him that he could not see. Serana heard him call out her name repeatedly. He covered his ears as if trying to block out a loud noise. The twins and Mjoll tried their best to calm him.
Serana mounted Mjoll's horse and put her hood up on her stellar new armor. She trusted Mjoll would take care of him, but she couldn't help but wish it wasn't necessary. It felt wrong to leave him, but she had to Serana steeled herself and dug her heels into Shadowmere taking off at a dizzying pace.
I'll be back soon, Max.