It had been centuries, millennia, and he was still falling, falling to the bottom of the great green ocean - for lack of a better word, for the liquid all around him was not ocean water; no, it was much thicker than water, sticky, slime-like, pressing at him on all sides, getting into his eyes and ears and mouth, lapping inside his lungs, flowing through his body instead of blood, hot and cold at the same time, so hot that it was benumbing, so cold that it was scorching. He was not alone - through the green veil that obscured his vision, he could make out another person, falling together with him, and he was at the same time glad and terrified. It was his mother, white and bloated, with her hair billowing like seaweed - just as on the day he found her, staring up at him through the water, when he was three years old... That was the day she started coming to him in nightmares, and so she had come to him again - this made him suspect vaguely that it was all a dream, yet another dream, and that if he tried really hard, it would all be gone, the green slime, and the sensation of falling, forever falling, and his mother's face, turned towards him, gaping at him with empty, hole-like eyes... He urged himself to wake up, he even called out to someone who might help him wake up - there had been this Dunmer, ages and ages ago, screaming silently, trying to hold on to him, to keep him from falling into the slime...
The fall ended. The all-consuming greenness was gone. He scraped his palms and knees, for he had dropped down on solid ground. Rejoicing at having finally woken up, he got to his feet, looked around - and froze, uncomprehending. He was in a long corridor, sloping downwards, with large, massive metal pipes attached to its walls, and green roots crawling out of dark corners. There was light, uneven, shimmering, reflected off the stones of the floor so that it made it seem paved with gold, and there was noise, loud, hammering, the noise of dwarven machinery at work, booming inside his very skull. And there was the head, the severed head, rolling down and down and down towards the end of the sloping corridor, leaving a bloody trail behind it - it was ugly, with dark, peeling skin warped by disease, and a frozen expression of pain and hatred. He followed the rolling head with his gaze - and then, he remembered. He had cut that head off himself, as he had cut off many heads before it. The heads of the Afflicted. Now he knew where he was.
'Peryite!' he called out at the top of his voice, 'Why have you sent me here again? Don't you know? I have ended the misery of all the poor souls contained inside this ruin, so that they may not spread your so-called Blessing - and I have thrown the shield you gave me deep into the Sea of Ghosts! Do you hear me? I defy you, Peryite! I defy you!'
'I defy you, Peryite... I defy you...' Baldr whispered weakly, tossing and turning in his bed at The Frozen Hearth Inn. Colette, Erandur, Enthir and Kharjo, who had all gathered at his side, exchanged startled looks.
'Aha!' the champion of the neglected art of Restoration exclaimed triumphantly, 'Did you follow his delirium? The poor foolish boy must have somehow crossed the Blighted Lord, and he decided to punish him by creating some new type of disease and infecting him with it!'
'Why am I not surprised...' Erandur muttered with a mirthless smile.
'This disease - can it be cured?' Kharjo asked, the tips of his ears twitching.
'Who knows,' Enthir sighed, 'If Colette here is right...'
'Of course I'm right!' Colette piped in indignantly; Enthir ignored her, 'If Colette is right and this is indeed some new-fangled invention of Peryite's, there is no telling what might be required for a cure...'
'Perhaps, a book on the subject could help?' asked a voice, meek and faltering, which turned out to belong to a young Dunmer girl, who was hovering on the inn room's threshold; when her eyes met Erandur's, she broke into a sudden fit of coughing and looked away, her greyish skin colour deepened by an intense blush.
'You!' Enthir cried out, glaring meaningfully at the girl and her two companions, a Nord and a Khajiit, clad, just as she was, in mages' robes, 'Who let you stir out of the College?'
'We were actually intending to persuade Master Enthir to part with Onmund's amulet,' the robed Khajiit explained silkily, 'But we could not but overhear...'
'This is none of your business!' Enthir said curtly, 'Now, let the grown-ups deal with their problems and get back to the College!'
'But you see,' the Dunmer girl seemed to have recovered from Erandur's gaze, and started speaking again, hurriedly, urgently, 'It just so happens that we know what might help! We were at the library this morning, and we saw that Urag was a good deal more grumpy than usual, and we asked why, and it turned out he is on edge because he is expecting a very rare, very informative book on Peryite to arrive at any moment! He has hired some sellswords to retrieve it for him from a cave, and they should be back soon! He told us that this is going to be the most detailed account of Peryite in the whole Arcanaeum!'
She fell silent, having run out of breath, and once again found herself looking into Erandur's eyes; this time, she held his gaze for quite a while, the corners of her lips raised in a shy smile, which he returned, his heart suddenly skipping a beat.
'Brelyna, my dear,' Colette declared, inadvertently breaking the spell, 'You just might be onto something. Now, we need a plan, don't we? How about I keep watch at the sickbed, while you kids, Enthir and - Erandur, was it? - go to the Arcanaeum and see if there are any other tomes on Peryite, since the sellswords haven't arrived yet? You might also prepare Urag for the news that his precious tome won't be arriving to him straight away. And subdue him in case he overreacts. And our new Khajiit friend may wait for these sellsword people and be ready to intercept them, directing them here instead of the College. How's that for you?'
They all agreed - the excitement of being needed seemed to have turned Colette into quite a tactician.
'Beautiful, isn't it?' Brelyna asked quietly, nodding at the northern lights.
'It's breathtaking,' Erandur replied, 'I think I will never cease to admire it'.
The search of the Arcanaeum had proved long and fruitless, and the conversation with Urag equally long and nerve-wrecking, so all of them had decided to return back to the Hall of the Elements through the roof, as a breath of fresh air is just what you need after dealing with dusty tomes and uncooperative Orcs - and it just so happened that Brelyna and Erandur had strayed off a little, turning inside a little turret with a large round opening, through which they could see the skyline of the Sea of Ghosts.
'Now all our hopes rest on these sellswords and the book they are bringing,' Erandur went on, his voice calm and thoughtful but his face strained with hidden anxiety.
Brelyna peered at him from beneath her hood, feeling the warmth of sympathy spread in waves from her heart, 'You really are worried about your friend, aren't you?'
He nodded, biting into his lower lip and never tearing his gaze away from the serene blue glow over the horizon, 'It's... difficult, knowing that he might... slip away at any minute...'
'He must be very brave, standing up to a Daedra Lord like that,' Brelyna remarked, both expressing her true opinion and seeking a way to somehow subtly comfort him.
Erandur smiled, 'He has quite a habit of standing up to Daedra Lords. He did so once... for my sake'.
Intrigued, Brelyna parted her lips to ask for more detail, but at that moment Erandur shifted his arm, which rested on the stone edge of the opening, into a more comfortable position; his sleeve brushed against Brelyna's hand, and she jumped back, as though stung. He looked at her, musing to himself on the inexplicable ways Lady Mara bestowed her blessing on mortals, and said softly, 'Perhaps we should go back inside. There are things that need attending to'.
Brelyna hastened to express her agreement, a bit too enthusiastically.
They parted their ways in the Hall of the Elements; Erandur exited the College to cross the bridge and join Colette at Baldr's side, while Brelyna proceeded into the Hall of Attainment, where she went to sleep in her quarters - and her dreams, quite naturally, were dominated by the face of the priest of Mara and the sound of his voice.
'I wonder what joke you would make if you knew,' Erandur murmured, pressing Baldr's lifeless hand in his, 'Please come back to us so you can make one'.
Colette was dozing in a chair next to the sickbed, so she heard nothing.
Kharjo was prowling outside the inn, awake and alert; his caravan had left for Winterhold, but he had stayed behind, determined to keep his eyes open for any sign of the sellswords.