Love & Loss

Finally

Max and Serana had begun their journey towards Darkfall Cave. They had stopped along the way and Max had bought Serana a new horse, since hers had been killed during the latest vampire attack. This horse was a comely bay mare. The owner insisted she was the strongest and most reliable horse he had. Max appeared to agree and without a second thought, dumped a large sum of gold into the grinning stable owner's hands. Max had taken great care to keep his identity a secret, wearing a deep cowl and mask while bartering with the stable master. Serana didn't think the owner suspected a thing but he did appear a bit suspicious when he looked at her. Serana kept her hood up and remained calm. She simply avoided looking at the man until the exchange concluded. Everything turned out fine. For once.

Serana liked the way this new horse moved. The gait was a lot less choppy than her previous one and it was much more capable of keeping up with Shadowmere. Serana had expressed her displeasure at Max spending money on her, but when she tried to tell him she would pay him back he simply grunted and waved off her words. Max could be surprisingly stubborn at times. He treated his own wealth as though it meant nothing to him, as if it were just a side-effect of decades of adventuring.

As they rode, Serana thought of her family and how much she missed her parents despite what they had become. The more she thought of it, the more impossible it seemed to reconcile their differences. Serana missed her mother most of all. Their exchange in the Soul Cairn hadn't been the best, but at least Serana could see her mother still cared for her. Regardless of what she had been put through, Serana just wanted everyone to be happy again, before her father discovered the prophecy. She missed working with her mother in her alchemy lab and picking flowers from her garden. Once this was all over, she would return to the Soul Cairn for her mother.

Serana felt a rush of air blow past her and a strange whoosh from above. Serana felt Max grab her horse's bridle and guide them under the trees. He dismounted and drew his new dragonbone axe. Serana could see a large shadow pass over the road where they once were. Serana dismounted and readied herself for a fight. A group of Kahjiit began to scramble as a fire blast nearly scorched them from the landscape.

"We can't pass this chance up. I need a few more souls to power that shout Duhrneviir gave me."

Serana snorted lightly, "You're starting to sound like a necromancer."

She could see Max smirk as he stepped into the clearing, he moved much quicker than before.

"Get to safety!" Max shouted to the Kahjiit travelers. A few scampered from the roads, tied down by large amounts of gear. The protectors of the caravans stood fast and prepared for the onslaught.

Max let loose Dragonrend as the dragon swooped overhead. The dragon's wings appeared to catch and the beast crashed to the ground, uprooting the wildlife that scampered away in all directions. Max and a few of the Kahjiit that wielded melee weapons charged the dragon while Serana and few archers attacked from afar. The dragon bit and clawed at its attackers, forcing them to draw back. The dragon turned its attention towards Serana and the archers. She could a glint of fire in its belly and she quickly moved in front of everyone and threw up a powerful ward. It was hot and nerve-wracking behind the ward, especially when all she could do was watch amid her focus as the fire swirled around them. Max and the swordsmen were hacking away at the dragon as it blasted its fire. The dragon swept an arm at the attackers and knocked them back again, all except for the Dragonborn. Max had managed to jump the swipe in heavy armor. Continuing towards the dragon, Max tucked and rolled under the dragon as it snapped at him. Seeing another fire blast coming, he brought down a mighty axe blow on its head and silenced the fire blast. The dragon roared and swiped at his legs, knocking him flat on his back. Max quickly rolled out of the way of a bite and blocked another swipe with his axe handle.

Max and the Kahjiit were doing a good job of taking turns diverting the dragon's attention from one another. Finally, Max appeared to see his opening and fearlessly jumped atop the dragon's head and began slashing at its neck with his axe short gripped in one hand. The dragon managed to pull him off with one of its claws and slam him to the earth with a loud clang of armor. Soon the dragon was upon him and Max let loose another shout, this time ice flew from his mouth. The dragon kept at him despite the Kahjiit attempting to draw it off.

"Serana!" Max shouted from the chaos.

Serana could see the dragon trying scratch at him, with surprisingly little success. Serana saw her opening but hesitated for a moment. Was she about to charge a dragon? Max was rubbing off on her.

Serana charged the dragon, drawing her Blade of Woe and leapt for the top of the dragon's head. She landed on its bony head with a grunt. Serana found one of its eyes and began stabbing madly, dragon blood flinging in all directions. The dragon wailed and began to flail, but it weakened and finally fell with a loud thud. Serana realized Max was still underneath the dragon and quickly slid from atop the dragon's head. Suddenly, a strange wind appeared to pick up and the dragon decayed to bones in a matter of seconds as bright beams of light whipped towards an unknown source. Max managed to pull himself free, the currents of light following him as he went. For a moment, Max stood and took in the soul as it entered him. As she watched Serana swore she saw his wounds heal before her eyes. When the lights had faded he looked a little different…younger and stronger even.

"Excellent finish," Max complimented Serana before turning towards the Kahjiit as they approached. Serana wondered what power such as that felt like. It was the type of power her father hoped to achieve through the prophecy. And yet Max didn't let it drive him mad. It must take the same amount of willpower it took her not to ravage any mortal she saw. The urge to drink his blood was always there, the temptation of tapping into the power of the Dovah was almost too much to resist. But Max never sought to take advantage of those lesser than him, he always used his power to help. At least in most cases. It seemed the demons of his past kept the ego in check.

"You have our thanks, Dragonborn. Your companion as well," one of the Kahjiit said gratefully, nodding to each of them. Serana watched the Kahjiit with fascination. The mysterious cat race was always interesting to her.

"Safe travels," Max said to them with a smile. They watched the Kahjiit go before retrieving their horses.

"What's it like?" Serana asked.

Max didn't follow the vague question. "What? The dragon souls?"

Serana nodded in affirmation.

Max stared down the road for a moment, trying to think of how exactly to describe it.

"It's like a sun entering your body. It's very warm, hot even. But for whatever reason it doesn't burn," He continued to think as he spoke, "I don't want to say it's refreshing because that would be disrespectful. But it is the immense power and knowledge of an immortal being trying to cram itself into a mortal body, to put it simply. It's overwhelming."

Serana believed what he said but one question remained. She hoped it would help her understand her father's madness.

"The way you talk about dragons is as if you respect them. Or even care for them. How can that be so when your sole purpose is to defeat them?"

Max considered this a moment. It made Serana wonder if someone had ever asked him that before.

"Dragons are my kin. In a sense, I am one of them since I can speak some of their tongue. Not all dragons I've encountered have been hostile."

"Like the one from the Soul Cairn?" She asked.

Max nodded, "Yes."

They came upon yet another cave. As it would seem, all of Skyrim's secrets were kept in caves. The cave was dark and lit sparsely by torches. Max and Serana proceeded forward cautiously, trying their best to be quiet. They discovered a waterfall around the next corner that surprised them to no end. What was down there?

They were able to take down a few frostbite spiders before they spotted them, their steps were unmistakable even with a waterfall in the background. A little ways further they came upon a rickety rope bridge across a large chasm with a fast flowing stream at the bottom. It appeared someone had been staying there, as there was a wooden table situated near the edge of the outcropping on the other side, a few candles were lit upon it and a single chair was pushed in.

"I don't like the look of this," Serana said quietly.

Max nodded his agreement and held his axe at the ready. He slowly began across the bridge, the boards creaking with every step. When Max came upon the middle, the ropes snapped and Max and Serana fell into the roaring stream with a shout. Max struggled against the current as it pulled him under. His armor made it difficult for him to orient himself. He managed to flounder his way to the surface just in time to catch his breath. The water began to flow upward slightly, going over a small bump. For one terrifying second, everything froze and Max saw himself about to be carried off a deep ledge. As he fell, he couldn't even scream, the cold water taking his voice. He was able to spot a frostbite spider falling with him, but couldn't see Serana, she must have been behind him.

Just as Max plunged into the water below he felt himself being pulled under by the current once again. Eventually his feet touched the bottom as the water grew shallow and Max landed on his hands and knees. His axe had stopped with him somehow, it didn't even occur to him that he lost it when he fell. He could hear sloshing footsteps behind him as he coughed up water and attempted to shake the bleariness from his vision. A spell whizzed over his head and struck a group of frostbite spiders that had been moving at him. Max watched them fall over the next ledge, which he realized was inches from his hands. He felt a hand on his armor and turned to see who it was while coughing the water from his lungs.

"Are you okay?" Serana asked, looking Max over for injuries.

Max took a few steadying breaths, "Yes, I'm fine. Just a little soggy that's all."

Serana smirked. "You're not fond of water, are you?"

Max shook his head. "That obvious is it?" he laughed breathlessly.

Serana smirked but kept her eyes on the area ahead in case more spiders decided to venture their way. Max found his feet and shook the water from his hair.

They continued down the cave, barely being able to see in the eerie green light. The inches deep water still trickled among the rocks, leading the way down the cavern. Max dispatched a few more spiders with the swing of his new axe. After venturing almost blind for a time, they spotted a burning brazier and a path. Max took a moment to warm himself in front of the brazier while Serana dried her sopping hair.

A little while later they found themselves in front of a camp. It was shocking to see someone actually lived here of all places. The bodies of the residents were long dead, though it was easy to guess what got them.

"These people were… why would anyone want to set up camp here?" Serana asked rhetorically. Max had no answer, he was wondering the same thing.

They continued through the narrow path until they came to another opening in the cave just as dark as the ones before.

"Keep your eyes open," Serana warned as she scanned the area.

Across the way, she spotted two trolls. She tapped Max on the shoulder to alert him of their whereabouts. In response he pulled out a crossbow from somewhere and fired at them under the cover of darkness.

Finally, a light could be seen in the distance and a man stood near what looked like some sort of shrine or altar. As they stalked closer they could see that he was no man, but an elf like nothing either of them had seen before.

"What's that? I can feel some kind of power from it," Serana commented, clearly intrigued.

"Come forward," the white skinned elf said, "You have nothing to fear here."

Max and Serana both cautiously approached, exchanging a puzzled glance in the process. The elf wore beautifully forged armor. Max couldn't tell what sort of ore was used to forge it but it looked to be top of the line.

"I am Knight Paladin Gelebor. Welcome to the Great Chantry of Auri-El."

Max and Serana looked at each other with confused expressions.

Max looked around before speaking, "This cave is a temple to Auriel?"

The elf looked at Max as though trying to translate what he said.

"Auriel, Auri-El, Alkosh, Akatosh…so many different names for the sovereign of the snow elves."

Max looked stunned, "Snow Elves? You're a Falmer?" he surveyed the man as he spoke, noting how different he looked compared to the ones he'd seen (and killed) in the past.

"I prefer snow elf," Gelebor corrected mildly, "The name 'Falmer' usually holds a negative meaning to most travelers."

Max could understand why. He noticed Serana looking at the elf with a mystified expression, she was just as amazed as he was.

Gelebor went on to tell Max and Serana of how the Falmer came to be what they are now. He also referred to them as the 'Betrayed' due to how they were transformed into monsters by the Dwemer.

Gelebor knew exactly why they were there. And proceeded to tell them how to get it. But of course, in order for him to assist them, they would have to help him kill his brother Arch-Curate Vyrthur. Apparently Vyrthur went off the deep end. Gelebor seemed to think the Falmer corrupted him when they stormed their chantry. It was hard to believe the Falmer were able to organize anything, but stranger things had happened.

Max did his best to hide his dismay. There was always a catch. Couldn't he just once have someone say 'Yes, here is what you seek!' and be done with it? No, of course not.

Gelebor then moved over to what looked like a roof with an Akatosh shrine piece atop it and cast a spell on it. Slowly the roof began to rise and the rest of what Gelebor called a 'wayshrine' was revealed.

"So this is Snow Elf magic…Incredible," Serana couldn't hide the wonder in her voice as she watched the wayshrine rise.

Gelebor turned to face them and explained the wayshrine, its purpose, and answered some of Serana's questions about it. She made a few snide remarks about the ritual and its futility. Gelebor got a little defensive but otherwise remained unemotive. Max did his best not to laugh.

"So let me get this straight. We need to do all that nonsense to get into the temple so we can kill your brother and claim Auriel's Bow?"

Gelebor appeared to drop his pride for a moment.

"I know how it all sounds, but if there was any other way I'd have done it long ago. The only way to get to my brother is to follow the Initiate's footsteps and go from wayshrine to wayshrine just as they did."

Max didn't hide his dread this time and groaned. There were five wayshrines total, which wasn't bad if it wasn't for how Gelebor said it. 'Spread far across the Chantry', that should be fun.

"The caves must be massive," Max groaned.

"Caves? Oh, no," Gelebor corrected, "The Chantry encompasses far more than a few caves, as you'll soon discover."

Max sighed. This just kept getting better and better.

Max unceremoniously took the ewer and listened to the directions on how to take water from each wayshrine.

"I'll be off now," Max said dubiously.

Gelebor wished them luck as they headed for the portal within the wayshrine.

A moment or two later, Max and Serana found themselves in yet another cave.

"That… wasn't as unpleasant as I thought it'd be," Serana commented from behind him. The transport had been soothing in some way, she even found herself feeling warmer. Something she didn't think possible.

"Don't be so sure yet," Max said holding up the ewer for her to see. "It's going to get heavy and one carrying it will have to sit out any fights we encounter."

Serana appeared to consider this a moment, "Don't worry, Initiate. I'll protect you," She jested.

Max smiled and began to make his way through the caves, finding his way by strange bioluminescent plants that glowed a purplish color. When Max passed them, the retreated as if they sensed his presence. He began to think he was traversing into a hidden world.

They fought charaus and Falmer as they went through the cave despite how difficult it was to spot them in the dark. Serana was invaluable in her ability to see in the dark, especially since Max lost any night vision he'd had as a werewolf.

They came upon what looked like a Falmer camp and defeated them. A little ways further they found strange looking pull chains.

Serana theorized that the Falmer wanted to keep something there. Max didn't like the sound of that.

When Max pulled both of the levers, he spotted what the Falmer feared. A strangely colored sabre cat. The cat charged and lunged for Max who stood his ground and drove his armored shoulder into the cat's head. Max rolled the ewer into a corner for safekeeping and resumed the fight. He held out the shaft of his axe to keep the sabre cat at a distance while Serana attacked it. The sabre cat swiped at Max but the claws struck only armor. Max used the opportunity to secure the shaft of his axe around the back of the cats head and gripped it in a head lock. Max pulled with all his might to bring the cat's head against the chest of his armor. He then twisted ninety degrees to his left, the sabre cat's spine made a sickening crack and the beast ceased to be. Its limbs moved mechanically a bit before stiffly dying off.

Max knelt before the great beast and examined it. Judging by his expression, he wasn't too happy about killing it.

"Poor beast," Max said regretfully.

Serana moved in to inspect it as well.

"Look at the patterns on its fur. I've never seen anything like it."

"I suspect he's like the Snow Elves. One of the last of his kin."

Max then drew a dagger and dressed down the great beast.

"We're going to need this skin," Max said as he rolled up the pelt with bloody hands. "This is the home of the Snow Elves."

Serana couldn't deny his logic. She went over and retrieved the ewer. Max must have already went down the path a ways for she didn't see him near the pile of entrails like he was a moment ago. As she rounded the corner she spotted Max, following his gaze onto the surreal scene before them. It was eerily beautiful with its bioluminescent flora and fauna. There were colors they'd never seen before. Even the rocks seemed to glow. Strange jellyfish looking mushrooms glowed the brightest of all, color a pale blue.

"Makes everything else worth it," Serana commented. Max agreed.

At the bottom of the cavern they spotted small deer trotting about. They were quite tame, probably because they hadn't seen humans before. The deer had similar glowing patterns on them just as the sabre cat did.

After a bit of awestruck exploration, Max and Serana spotted another one of those submerged roofs with the Akatosh shrine symbol sitting at the center. A ghostly form stood just before it.

"Welcome Initiate," The snow elf said cheerily, "This is the Wayshrine of Illumination. Are you prepared to honor the mantras of Auri-El and fill your vessel with His enlightenment?"

"Sure," Max said half-heartedly. The ghost didn't appear to notice, "Then behold Auri-El's gift, my child. May it lighten your path as you seek tranquility within the Inner Sanctum."

As the ghost assumed a mage's stance Max gave Serana a bored look to which she returned with a roll of her eyes. Max seemed to be a less troubled in the time he had been free of being a werewolf. He was funny and frankly, more human.

Serana moved over to the basin and dipped the ewer in. Another portal flashed to life in front of them. They both stepped through to find themselves standing at the mouth of yet another cave.

"Wow, another cave. Shocking," Max said dryly.

Serana laughed, "Were you expecting something more exciting?"

Max shrugged, "It would be nice to explore a nice, dry open plain just once. Or maybe the warm beaches in Elsweyr."

They clambered up the walkway to find themselves standing before a vast windswept land. The pines were barren and the ground was a glum greyish color like the usual Skyrim winter. Small dustings of a previous snowfall remained in shadowy places.

"This is incredible," Serana marveled, "It's like a whole other world."

Max stared at it a while too. In all of his travels, this had to be one the most incredible quest he'd had in a long time. He glanced at his companion when she spoke.

"Come on, the bow has to be in this valley somewhere," She said before walking down the ravine. This journey was incredible because of her.

They were two wayshrines in to their journey when the path lead them to yet another magnificent overlook. The area below was snow covered and river cut its way through the valley. They made their way down the path and followed the river to the next wayshrine.

"Hm. This hasn't been as difficult as I thought it would be," Serana commented.

"Don't say that so soon," Max warned jokingly, "This ewer is getting heavy."

Serana snickered.

They came upon the river once again, realizing they had to cross. Max reluctantly crossed the river while holding the ewer above his head. The bite of the cold seemed to affect him more since he had parted with his beast blood. On the shore, Max took a moment to collect himself. Serana tapped him on the shoulder and pointed towards the waterfall just around the corner to where a giant stood. It was like no other giant Max had encountered. It had thick fur and horns that protruded from each side of its head.

Max drew his axe and nodded at Serana before charging off towards the beast. Max dodged its tree mace just in the nick of time before planting his axe blade deep in its knee. The giant cried out in pain swinging instinctually in the direction of the pain. Max went flying into a cluster of trees with a crash. Serana continued to throw every spell she knew at the giant. Judging by its fur, Serana guessed the giant probably didn't like heat very well. She cast fireballs at the giant, subsequently catching its attention. Serana rolled out of the way of the massive tree club and continued to blast away at the creature's flank. From behind her, Serana could hear Max shake the snow off of him and resume the battle. It was nice to have the troll's attention away from her, especially since it allowed her time to cast more powerful spells. Finally the giant fell and Max and Serana were left panting from fighting the massive creature.

Max turned his head to one side in an effort to crack it. It popped back into place with a satisfying crack followed by a satisfied sigh from Max.

Serana shot Max a wan smile.

"What?" the Dragonborn demanded.

"That giant made you look like a skeever. You flew a good thirty yards."

Max laughed a little, "You try being smacked with a tree and we'll see how far you fly."

"Next time we run into a giant," Serana agreed jokingly.

"We better hope we don't run into anymore giants," Max said wearily. He moved over to where he'd sat the ewer and picked it up once again.

They'd been moving for a while, making small talk as they went. A thoughtful silence had fallen between the two, allowing Serana to ponder the question she'd had for days.

"Something the matter?" asked Max, sensing something was amiss.

"I know we said what we saw wasn't to leave the cave, but I can't help but wonder," Serana trailed off, reading Max's expression and deciding whether or not to go on with her question. Max did not protest, he only looked at her expectantly.

"How much of what we saw was true. I know you said the wolf was a part of you,"

Max nodded as if this was what he'd been expecting.

"Well everything you saw was true, in a sense. Though some of what you saw was my insecurities versus reality. It benefitted the wolf to bring those up in an attempt to break me. Those were some of the choices that had been eating at me for years."

"Like the one with your father?" she asked.

"Yes. In the end I know what I did was right, but choices like that still haunt you."

Serana knew how that was. She thought back on the image of Aela, both times she had seen it. She couldn't help but wonder which one had been the real one. Either one could have been manipulated to suit either the wolf or Hircine's needs. Maybe they were one and the same. Another thing occurred to her, she had been wondering if she'd see herself among the angry apparitions, but part of her was glad she didn't. She wondered if that meant he had no insecurities about her or that he didn't think of her as important at all. But he wasn't like her father. She knew in her heart he wasn't.

As they climbed the steep incline, Serana spotted another wayshrine jutting out from the snowy mountainside.

"I think I see another wayshrine," She said, pointing.

Max followed her finger to the source, "Aye. What a relief. Only two left."

"Getting tired?" Serana teased.

Max nodded, "This damned ewer is heavy."

Serana laughed at his plight as they crossed the gorge on a natural stone bridge.

They collected the water from the basin and made their way on to the next one, though the map Gelebor had given them indicated that the last two were a good distance away. Serana could tell Max was getting tired so she kept an eye out for a place to make camp.

They came across a Falmer settlement and quickly overtook the nasty beasts.

Serana tended to the fire while Max set up a place to sleep just inside one of their strange looking huts. Instead of going to sleep right away, he elected to sit out by the fire for a while, staring into the flames.

"What will you do when this is all over?" he asked without looking at her.

If she was being honest, Serana hadn't given it much thought.

"Well, I think freeing my mother would be the first thing I'd do," Serana speculated. It seemed Max had anticipated this, his expression also suggested he was a bit concerned about it as well. "What about you?" Serana wasn't sure what he'd say.

Max shrugged to show he did not know. She guessed downtime wasn't something he was accustomed to.

"I'm sure something will come up," He said wearily. His expression returned to a more hardened one. "What will you do about the vampires?"

"Assuming some will yet live after we attack," Serana said, staring into the fire for a moment, "I'm not sure they'd even follow me. After all, I deliberately defied them. I think they would be more willing to follow my mother. But I doubt there will be many, if any pureblood left after this prophecy runs its course."

Max didn't respond to this, as she expected, he didn't appear too bothered by the prospect of waning vampire numbers. So why did he seem so concerned for her well-being?

By this time, Max had headed inside the tent-like Falmer structure and began to take off his armor. Though she tried to pretend she wasn't looking, Serana watched as he removed his undershirt. His back was covered with scars, some larger and more brutal than others. When he turned towards her for a moment before he laid down, she caught a small smile on his lips suggesting he knew she was looking.

After a short while, Max lay still and silent. He had begun to sleep much more soundly since he cured his moon blood. Instead of snoring, he slept quietly and found himself well rested upon waking.

Max was laying in his bed in Breezehome with Aela. They were snuggled up close, their nude skin covered only by their fur blankets. They had just rid Skyrim of the Silver Hand and Kodlak Whitemane's soul had reached Sovngarde. Max and Aela were newly married and very happy together.

He ran his hand along her side, reveling in her soft skin and shapely curves. She smiled mischievously at him and moved in for a kiss.

"I wish things could stay this way," Aela said, her steel eyes shining in the candlelight.

Max caressed her face, "I know. Peace never lasts in Skyrim."

She nodded against his hand their faces only inches apart. She was playing with his necklace that dangled at his chest. She liked to do that.

Before he knew what was happening, Max was standing and heading for the door.

"Where are you going? Stay with me," she said playfully.

As much as he wanted to, something within him knew it wasn't right, but he couldn't remember why. He never wanted to leave this place. He never wanted to leave Aela.

"I have to go, love," He said sadly.

Aela stood, in all her nude glory and strode over to him, slinking as best she could. Max couldn't stop himself from looking at his wife and feeling deep desire. She placed her hands on his shoulders lightly.

"No you don't. It doesn't have to be this way. You can stay with me forever."

Max immediately knew something was amiss. Aela never talked like that, she understood the costs of duty.

"No I can't," Max pressed, attempting to pull from her strong grip. He looked at his bare shoulders and realized they were bleeding from where her nails had dug in. Suddenly, everything made sense.

"Please, Max,” Aela begged.

"Aela. Love, you died," He said as more of a reminder to himself. This was a dream.

"No, Max. I'm here. You felt it yourself," She said sliding her hands down his chest.

She was right about that. If this was a dream, it was very vivid one.

Max looked at Aela mournfully, "This isn't real. As much as I wish it were so."

Aela cupped his face, bringing to hers, "I love you."

Max kissed her, "I love you too." He took a step back, "But I have to let you go."

Aela reeled back as if struck, she looked angry.

"You saw me in that tomb, you saw everyone. Everyone but her," Aela spit the last word out as if it were venom.

Max knew of whom she spoke.

"I can keep secrets even from myself. Just as you did."

Aela seemed to know what he meant, "You're protecting her? A vampire? Are you mad?"

Max shook his head, "No, Aela. I mourned you for years. I was hollow. Only now have I regained myself. I've found someone who understands what I've been through. Let me have my peace."

Aela began to morph into something different entirely…A wolf to be exact. Max suddenly became more aware that he was naked and unarmed. He sprinted down the stairs of Breezehome, head darting around as he tried to find a weapon or armor, but there was nothing. He burst through the front door, taking it off its hinges in his haste. He found himself not in Whiterun but in a plane of Oblivion. The area around him was tall grass and even taller trees. The sky above him was a deep red and he could hear the howls of wolves and other creatures in the distance. Aela was still hot his heels and he knew it wouldn't be long before she caught him. Max put everything he had into running… he wasn't built for speed. Before he was tackled to the ground, Max noticed there was something of a platform emerging from the tall grass. A creature with a stag's head and a man's body was perched at the center of the strange platform. Beasts of all kinds stalked around this throne of sorts.

Max was tackled to the ground by Aela's wolf, he held his arms before his face to protect himself from her claws, but they never came. Instead Max felt himself being drawn up by the hair on the back of his head. It was humiliating to be carried like a wolf pup, but he wasn't in any condition to do anything about it. He could only watch as the creature paced about, he called more creatures to him with only the tap of his spear. Max saw not only werewolves but cats, crocodiles, and bears as well. They were warped as though were-creatures, just as they had been in life. They all made growling noises as Max passed, but everything went silent when the creature tapped its spear on the stone beneath its…hooves.

It took Max a minute but he knew exactly whom he was dealing with. Clearly Hircine was none too pleased about losing his grasp over one of his more powerful subjects. Though he was renowned for getting out of sticky circumstances, Max doubted he was getting out of this one. He uneasily noted the entrails and gore that littered the area as if they were an offering. Braziers made of the bones of prey. They were the only light in the entire realm of plains and forest. Max found himself dropped in a kneeling position in front of the daedric prince, which was when he realized he had somehow donned the vale cat pelt as a loincloth. He rubbed the sore spot on the back of his head ruefully as the beast prince stalked before him. He knew quite well there was little to nothing he could say to help his situation, Hircine was already much too upset.

The beast looked at him with beady stag's eyes. Somehow they still conveyed the obvious disdain, which was odd to see on the face of the always flighty stag. When the prince spoke he sounded like the combination of the usual intimidating daedra voice and a wolf's growl. There were other sounds that harmonized with his voice, but Max couldn't single one out.

"Maximus, it saddens me that things must be as they are."

Max looked up at the beast, unsure of what sort of judgment he was inevitably going to be subject to. As Hircine spoke, the beasts that crowded round to hear had begun to devour the remains that were scattered around the platform.

"It saddens me as well, Huntsman," Max said, recalling the many names the daedra had.

Hircine shook his furry head from side to side, around him the beasts seemed to sense his displeasure and began to cause a stir. Hircine tapped his spear on the ground and the realm went silent.

"You act as though I am unreasonable, Dragonborn, but you know of my honor…Yet you defy me and cast my gift back at me as Kodlak did."

Max stole a glance at Aela, though she was still a beast, he could tell she was aware of what was taking place. Little could be discerned of her position on this issue though.

"I did not intend it as an insult. I just… Would prefer to rest in Sovngarde," Max realized how pathetic a defense he was putting up.

"If you do not wish to reside here with your blood brothers and sisters in the eternal hunt, then why seek my boon?"

The totems. He speaks of the totems.

"It was not intended for myself," Max resisted the urge to look at Aela.

"Yes, yes. For your beloved wife." Hircine looked as if he were thinking for a moment. "Love is an illusion, Dragonborn, surely you have figured that out by now."

Max gritted his teeth.

"Ah," Hircine's multi-faceted voice hissed out the word like a were-cat, "You clearly have not. No, you tried to hide her from me. That's why you disposed of my gift, is it not?"

Max shot a look at Aela, who continued to stare passively at the exchange, her wolf's eyes almost glassy.

"No, not that one."

Max looked up at the beast, confused.

"Do not attempt to toy with me, Dragonborn. You are falling prey to our natural enemies."

He means Serana.

"That is not true. I mean to stop them."

Hircine's stag head cocked to one side in question, "All of them?"

Maxs face fell, "No. I-,"

Hircine stomped a hoof into the stone, "See? Now you understand why you are here. You refuse to do your duty and slay ALL of my brother's vile spawn. You have obviously been duped by his children and swayed to his vile manner of thinking."

Max realized there was little he could do at this point, but argue. His wife was Hircine's servant before Max was ever anything to her. She was long gone, it seemed.

"I have not been deceived! I mean to stop Harkon's plan!"

Hircine smiled in an unsettling manner, "You miss the point, Dragonborn. The Tyranny of the Sun plagues my children as well. Why should they hide such power?"

"Because it is their way! It would surely mark the were-creatures' extinction if the sun went black. The Silver Hand may be gone, but more will rise to the cause!"

Hircine clearly wasn't in a negotiating mood, he stepped closer to Max and glared at him.

"Then what will you do with me?" Max said quietly.

"You were to be my champion, to carry Auriel's bow and lead my children to destroy Molag Bol's abominations and spread my power throughout Tamriel. But now, instead you shall be our prey. My loyal children will hunt you, as is their right. See, I am honorable and reward them for their service."

Max stood and charged the beast, hoping to knock his spear loose, but Max merely passed through him. The daedra vanished at this.

He fell face first into the ground and fully expected to be eaten alive. As he found his feet he discovered that he was no longer in the same place as he last remembered but in the middle of the forest. Aela, in beast form, stood near him. She faced not towards him, but out, standing guard over him. For a moment they made eye contact and Max could hear her voice in his head. It brought tears to his eyes, hearing her voice after so long.

"There's not much time. Run and she will come for you."

Max didn't know what to make of this. But when Aela turned to him one last time he knew what about to happen. His wife's last act of devotion.

"Goodbye, my love."

With that Aela turned and faced the werecat as it charged them.

Max's whole body ached at hearing this but still he had no choice but to run for his life. He ran not for himself but for all of Skyrim. For Aela. And most of all, he ran for Serana.

Serana had felt the disturbance immediately. Max's peaceful breathing had turned into labored, gasping breaths. He thrashed about mumbled nonsense. Something was wrong. Serana wasted no time moving into action. Everything had been sitting in her pack, waiting for this moment. It didn't take her long to set everything up, but when she said the words and touched Max's sweaty hand, she instantly found herself in a dense forest. If not for her enhanced vision, Serana wouldn't be able to see anything at all. She could hear the sounds of howling predators in the distance.

I hope I'm not too late.

Serana began to run, keeping her head on a swivel as she moved through the dark forest. It seemed like every small movement set her instincts off. This was obviously no place for a vampire. Out of nowhere, a voice rumbled behind her.

"You do not belong here, vampire."

Serana peeked around to see a half man half stag pursuing her. She made no attempt to respond, her priority was to find Max. The less time she spent in a plane of Oblivion, the better.

The howling of wolves grew closer and the Daedra yet pursued her.

"He cannot shield you here and you cannot free him!" The Daedra howled.

Serana picked up the pace and continued towards the howling. As much as it went against her better judgment, Serana knew Max would be there. As she reached the tall prairie grass, she squinted hoping to spot him. She could hear the grass crunching and spotted the grass parting in the wake of a large man sprinting. Max was wearing only a loin cloth and carried no weapon. She could hear his exhausted panting from a good distance away. He had been running a long time and was clearly tiring.

Serana decided it best not to call out to him since it would bring attention to herself. She continued towards him and he seemed to spot her, but showed no signs of slowing down.

Once the distance was closed Serana leapt towards Max and threw her arms around him. She conjured up a spell and within a moment, they found themselves back in the Forgotten Vale both panting as they lie in a disheveled heap.

Max lie flat on his back while Serana was laying almost fully on top of him. For a few minutes they just laid there, trying to catch their breath. Finally, they both sat up, looking at each other with thoughtful expressions as they tried to figure out what had just happened.

Max's was the most troubled, "How did you," he trailed off, not understanding exactly what had transpired.

Serana smirked, "I have my ways."

Max looked at the ground for a moment, "Thank you," he said, "I wouldn't have made it out of there if not for you."

Serana smiled, "Hircine was ugly," she said with a small laugh.

Max joined her, "Yes, he was."

It was clear there was something else on Max's mind though.

"Aela knew you would come for me. How?" Max's voice cracked a bit as he spoke. Thinking of what Aela had sacrificed saddened him greatly.

"When we were at your estate…I touched the totem by her portrait and she spoke to me. She knew this was coming and she wanted me to do anything I could to protect you from Hircine."

Max's eyes clouded over for a minute as he processed this.

"I still don't understand why Hircine would be angry enough to try and destroy you," Serana said, unsure of what his answer would be.

"The fact that I cured myself wasn't the issue, it was the manner in which I did. The reason I was getting sick and the reason I was taken there are one and the same. The fact that I was aiding the werewolf's natural enemy. You. It did not sit well with Hircine. He felt cheated."

"Cheated? Why?"

"Because if it wasn't for you, I doubt I would have ever parted with the beast blood. Even if I wanted to. I couldn't let go Aela. That is until now. I've been hiding from Hircine ever since I began to...care for you. Hircine clearly saw it as against the natural order and tried to stop me. He thinks I have fallen to his brother's side, but I have not."

Serana felt as if she'd been struck, this was not what she was expecting he would say. She should have been more concerned at Hircine's wrath, but it was what he had said earlier that really stuck with her. He cared for her. Not only that but he cared so much to defy a Daedra prince rather than see her harmed.

Before she knew what she was doing, Serana leaned forward and kissed Max.


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