A Step in the Right Direction
The last thing Max remembered from the night before was stumbling into Breezehome's alchemy lab, hoping to find something to cure him of his nausea. When he opened his eyes at high noon he found himself curled up next to the fire pit in the center of the first floor room. Max noticed his head rested on a sack of vegetables and that a thick fur blanket was neatly pulled over him. He looked up to see Lydia coming down the stairs behind him, the years had not been kind to her. Wrinkles lined her face as her mouth fell in a grim line, "It has been far too long, my Thane."
Max's facial expression remained blank, he hadn't planned on saying anything, but Lydia filled the silence for him.
"I understand why. I just would expect someone like you to be able to move after some time. She may not be in Sovngarde, but she's watching over you, like our ancestors and loved ones," Lydia's voice showed great understanding. After all, she had lived in the same house as them for the entirety of their marriage. She knew them best, second only to the members of the Companions.
"I haven't changed anything, I only removed the cobwebs and cleaned as needed. I won't change it unless you wish me to," Lydia said softly.
Max frowned in thought. The expression had become his only show of emotion since Aela's death. He didn't even smile when he was drunk.
"I can't bring myself to go in there," he confessed with a sigh.
Lydia nodded. Her facial expression changed to one of a captain addressing their charges. She opened her fist, revealing a crumpled piece of paper, "You've far too much talent to sit on your sorry arse and mope! Aela wouldn't want you to be like this! She'd want you to do her honor by killing Silver Hand members or clearing out a bandit cove!" She threw the crumpled paper his face.
Max picked it up and gingerly pulled it apart. It was a map showing the southwest region of Skyrim. He recognized the Stendarr's Beacon marked near the cave in which he was supposed to take to get to Dawnguard Castle. He glanced up at Lydia and smirked, "I suppose it's worth a shot." She gave him a fierce look, one that a Nord warrior gives to another. "Damn right it is. Make Skyrim proud."
Max slowly moved into a cross-legged sitting position. He squinted and pinched the bridge of his nose, trying to think through a hungover headache. Max simply sat there for a few minutes, trying to coax himself from his warm place on the floor.
Max trudged towards Whiterun's stable, dressed in his favorite outfit, heavy ebony armor. Much to his amusement, the stable owner gave him a nervous nod as he handed the reins of Max's undead horse, Shadowmere over. Max patted his loyal horse fondly, admiring his glowing red eyes.
Max stepped onto the mounting block, thankful that he didn't have to ground mount with all of his armor on. He tossed the stable hand a few gold pieces and rode from the paddock to the dirt road. He stroked Shadowmere's pitch-black mane, "To Fort Dawnguard it is." The horse nickered and began to gain speed as Max's heels tightened into Shadowmere's side, heading off towards the scenic mountains that lay southwest of them.
The first few hours had been spent simply admiring the landscape, though it had been difficult for him to keep Aela off his mind. These mountains had been their hunting grounds for nearly ten years. In fact, their honeymoon had been spent terrorizing the bandit camps along this road.
It had been the time of his life, doing what they both loved. Max respected his werewolf gift in the way that it was there when it was needed, but he preferred not to use it unless it was necessary. He feared spending too much time as an animal would make him such. Aela on the other hand, loved to hunt as the wolf, the ultimate hunter of Skyrim. Despite their difference in opinion the two never argued over the topic, instead respecting the other’s interpretation.
Max had always regretted spending so much time away in the last few months before Aela's death. Even after the defeat of Alduin and ending of the civil war, Skyrim was needy.
Max knew she didn't hold it against him, but he reprimanded himself for not being so quick to accept so many quests. Aela was also quite busy with the Companions. For all intents and purposes, she ran the guild. Max had actually passed the Harbinger title to her. Though she would never admit it, Aela deserved the honor more than he. Max still remembered the look in her eyes when he called the Companions into the hall and announced that Aela, not he, was the true Harbinger. By the look in her eyes, Max could see the way he felt after defeating Alduin. Aela's reaction wasn't overly ecstatic like most, but one of genuine respect.
"I'm so proud of you, Max. I'm sure your ancestors are beaming," she joked. Her words in that moment had meant more than any other. For as much as people would say 'thank you' and toss gold and gifts his way, they never understood his struggle the way Aela did.
Max could see the towering Stendarr's Beacon jutting from the side of the mountain. He quickened the pace, his arse and inner thigh growing tired of the saddle. Cresting the plateau, he could see two Vigilants, a man and woman, clad in their usual robes approach him. Max guessed that they needed help, after all, everyone seemed to. He climbed down, his eyes darting around the area. There didn't appear to be any immediate danger. Max's eyes narrowed as the Vigilants grew closer. His gut told him something wasn't right about them.
The Vigilants called out to him, "Help!"
Max inspected them, something about them was off. His suspicions were confirmed when one of the 'Vigilants' leapt at him with a disturbing hiss. Vampires.
Max quickly moved to one side, dodging the attack. A loud snap of the buttons on Max's back released his greatsword into his grip. He lunged forward, cutting down the knees of the second attacker and then slashing the artery at his neck. Turning round he could see the other vampire coming around for another assault. Her left hand flashed red as she tried to drain the life from Max. Charging forward, Max hacked her once, twice, three times, and she ceased to be. Collecting his breath, Max scanned the area once more. Satisfied he was alone, Max rested his greatsword on his shoulder since it was a real pain to strap it on his back with a limited range of motion.
Max led Shadowmere to the mouth of the cave and let him go, confident the horse could handle himself. He headed into the cave and began towards Fort Dawnguard.
Cresting the steps, a large, fortified wooden door greeted him. He found it was unlocked and simply pushed it open. A vaguely familiar Orc greeted him, though his name escaped Max's memory. Max greeted him with a nod.
A nord with fair hair, clad in the similar armor to orc looked at Maximus and then back to the orc, "Who's this Durak? One of your recruits?"
Max scowled slightly at being referred as though he were a squire.
"I was recruited, yes. But I am not new blood," Max said bitterly.
The Nord must have not expected Max to pipe up for he simply stared at Maximus, sizing him up. Max was twice this man's size and it was obvious by the smaller Nord's silence.
Durak ignored the spat, "Isran will be wanting a word with you, Maximus."
The Nord's dark blue eyes widened in recognition of the name of the only Dragonborn. He quickly volunteered to show Maximus to their leader. He introduced himself as Agmaer. Max could see this fort was quite undermanned, perhaps explaining why he discovered vampires so close to the compound.
The leader, Isran, was a tall, fierce looking Redguard. His steel colored eyes contrasting his skin, he had a long dark beard that only added to his intimidating demeanor. Maximus could tell this man was well proven in the field of battle. Isran was currently in a heated argument with a tall, bald man dressed in faded robes. Max could hear something about a 'recent' attack. And how their numbers were 'severely hit'.
Once the argument appeared over, Max approached the Redguard, "Where do I start?" he asked simply.
Isran smirked in respect, "Right to business, my kind of recruit."
Max nodded impatiently.
"You're a seasoned warrior so I will not waste your talents on clearing out clusters of thralls and masters," Isran thought for a moment, running his hands through his beard.
"The vampires we seek are ones of great power. They seem to be interested in Dimhollow Crypt. You are to go there and discover whatever it is they are after."
Maximus nodded noticing the other man from the argument approaching.
"I will meet you at the crypt. My name is Vigilant Tolan," the older, bald man said.
Maximus bowed his head in greeting, but said nothing. He noticed Isran's glare at the Vigilant as Tolan exited the keep. There certainly was bad blood between the two and Max wanted no part in it.
"I'll leave first thing in the morning," Max said, "I should arrive around the same time as he," he said, referring to Tolan.
Isran spoke without even a blink, "Yes, you should."
Max awoke in the comfort of the one of the fort's fur lined beds. He rolled to the edge of the bed and sat up. It must have rained the previous night, for a puddle gathered on the stone floor before him. Max could see his reflection quite well. He hadn't looked at himself in quite some time, finding his appearance quite startling. His features covered by an uncharacteristically thick, unkempt beard. Max seemed to catch the eye of nearly every woman in Skyrim. His handsome Nordic facial features and dark brown eyes were quite attractive. His dark brown hair and beard were usually kept well-trimmed and gave him a rugged, battle-hardened appeal that caught the respect of the men and the fancy of ladies. Now he preferred not to be recognized.
Max stared himself in shame. He was once a charismatic, well-respected man. Though his defeat of Alduin remained the talk of Skyrim, Max had yet to add to his saga. Sure, the assassination of the Emperor had been credited to the Dark Brotherhood, but Max had been very careful not to share his name or face with them. He had always kept his mask, Rahgot, over his face when he worked. He was only referred to as, 'The Listener' among the Brotherhood.
Max pulled out a knife and began to clean his appearance up, cutting his hair and beard to their old length. Max armored up and slid Rahgot over his face. He had a good feeling about today for some reason and his gut had yet to fail him.
After a day's ride, Max had stopped in Dawnstar. He visited his old friends in the Kahjiit Caravan. Their leader, Ahkari, always came across many interesting items and loved to trade them with Max. He was always welcome to stay with any of the Kahjiit caravans. Of any of the races among Skyrim, Max respected the Kahjiit the most. They were always friendly and eager to tell stories of their travels or of their homeland, Elsweyr.
The cats had a knack for cooking as well. Maximus had a taste for spicy food and the Kahjiit were the best he had come across in delivering delicious meals with a kick. Maximus smirked to himself, The Gourmet's 'disappearance' had left Skyrim searching for the next big obsession. He hoped the Kahjiit's chili would become popular, for their sake. The race could use a good rap for once.
"It is a pleasure to see you again, friend," Kharjo greeted him. Max smiled and shook the cat's furry paw. Max had joked at envying the Kahjiit's soft fur, wishing he had it on the colder adventures. The cats had liked that one, taking it as a compliment.
After a few hours resting by the warm fire and filling his belly with Kahjiit chili, Max decided it was time to head towards Dimhollow. He thanked the Kahjiit and wished them well in their travels. He left them with a few salvaged weapons and trinkets to sell and went on his way.