Until she touched the mirror, she'd meant to jump away.
Gongora's desperate struggles became infinitely weaker the moment she forced him into its liquid light, and she was gathering strength for the final shove and her own escape when her hand slipped past the border.
Return! The call wove past her ears and directly to her soul, and Seth stood breathless and defenseless against its power.
"I'll be seeing ya," she called over her shoulder. "We're going back first!"
A thousand years seemed like time enough. She looked back once more, at the proud pirate her Sed had become, and knew he would be well.
And then there was light, and there was pain, and there was light, heavy as though mountains were pressing in on her, and she couldn't move, trapped, trapped--No! Seth screamed, silently, old panic flaring anew.
Warmth or something like it surrounded her, gentle and concerned and radiating peace. "Seth, you're safe," someone whispered. "Seth of Balmore, let go, you're home."
It wasn't like opening her eyes. It was a little like waking from a very long dream, but in truth, nothing in Seth's thousand years of memories compared to the feeling of breathing the light again, and the flood of awareness that made all her life feel like sleepwalking in comparison. Seth shuddered and let herself expand, and realized for the first time how much effort it had taken all these years to hold her physical form, the form that wasn't her at all.
Somehow she'd thought that going through the mirror would be like death, but there was no comparison. She'd died a thousand times and more, and knew that darkness as well as she knew sleep. Tasting the light was like...freedom.
Gongora was across the enclosure, she realized, with a wince as a tendril of black hatred reached her--without the barriers of a physical body, everything seemed terribly close. Other people--her people, soul-folk--were struggling with him now, building a shield to enclose his darkness. The vibrations that reached her seemed familiar, but she still couldn't quite remember the time before her human life.
"Quick," a light, frantic voice called, or so Seth translated the impression that was not sound at all. "Seth, help me, I can't do this alone!"
The speaker was small and brilliantly violet, vibrant with urgency. Seth peered closer, feeling something oddly familiar about her. "Who--?"
"They'll never make it away from the mirror if we don't help them," the violet presence said, "and I can't reach that far anymore. Our children need us, Seth!"
The flicker of image across the presence was faint, without conscious definition, but Seth recognized two of the fleeting faces--the brown-haired child with hair in cheerful pigtails that she had last seen in the reflection of Sarah's memory, and the strained face of a worried mother. "Lirum?" she breathed. But there was no time for explanations now, if Sed needed her.
Lirum plunged into the ominous, fractured maelstrom that the surface of the mirror had become on this side, and Seth followed. "Like this!" she cried, latching onto the edges of the portal. "I'll anchor you!"
With Lirum's firm grip to guide her, Seth dove into the darkness again, finding the path beyond. She remembered this now, distantly, how difficult it had been to condense and limit her soul-self into physical form, but there was no need for that this time--she reached out for the resonance of Ming's amulet, instantly recognizable after all the time Seth had carried it.
Her friends looked very different from this perspective, yet somehow entirely the same: Kaim's fierce determination, Sarah's warm concern, Ming's kindness as unyielding as a sword. The mortals seemed oddly vivid, too, imbued by the light they had so briefly touched.
The ship was on the verge of shaking apart in the sudden fluxes of magic energy, of light that did not belong to the frail, physical human world, and Seth put aside her curiosity and grasped it tenderly. The Nautilus had served them valiantly and did not deserve to die now--and nothing would induce her to let her friends or her son come to harm.
The sharp edges of their grief made her flinch, but she clung long enough to whisper reassurances she hoped they could feel, before letting Lirum pull her back again. With the mirror's power nearly gone, and reacting violently on both sides, straining through the chaos left Seth gasping, and Lirum looked very pale and small when they finally reached the relative calm again.
It was an isolation chamber, Seth knew, without knowing how she knew. The pearlescent walls of light that made up the wide chamber were a desperate defense against the danger that had begun to leak into this world from the human world, and the mirror had been their effort to focus and control the passage both ways.
Now it was gone, and somehow Seth did not think anyone here would see that as a good thing.
Gongora was nearly invisible in the prison woven for him, and the people who had been thus occupied turned their attention to Seth and Lirum. "What did you just do?" the brightest soul demanded of Lirum, who flinched and drew smaller still, silent.
"We had to save my friends," Seth answered for her, firmly. How Kaim and Sarah's daughter had gotten here, she wasn't sure, but no one was going to talk to her like that.
None of the soul-folk responded for a long moment, and Seth had the uncomfortable feeling that she was being studied and found wanting. "Are they all so badly infected?" a smaller, greener light murmured, in something very like horror. "Without the Mirror--"
"We may have no choice but to use the contingency plan after all," the third said, orange light flickering dimmer with the words.
Lirum flared up at Seth's side, a burst of angry denial that struck all of them like shards of ice. "No, you can't!"
"What contingency plan?" Seth demanded, because this was not at all reassuring, and all three soul-folk flinched from her sudden fear.
The brightest said firmly, "Calm yourselves. We all agreed that would be a last resort." But his light flickered in doubt as he turned to observe Gongora, still thrashing within his prison.
Still spiking bitterness, Lirum said, "If they can't find any way to keep emotion from leaking into this world, their last resort is to destroy the human world."
"What?" Seth breathed.
"Seth, you don't understand how bad it's gotten," the green light said, trembling around the edges. "We've lost nearly half our people to the madness or to the damage the infected ones cause, and it's getting worse. The Mirror worked at first, but the link just keeps getting stronger, and after Lirum and Aneira were forced through, we couldn't control the flow anymore..."
Utter shock flooded Seth, and the soul-folk flinched away from her. "Please control yourself," the orange one requested. "That hurts."
"We will let Lirum explain everything to Seth," the bright soul declared. "There is time to ask her about the mission after she understands the situation here, and we cannot risk becoming infected ourselves."
Seth looked at Lirum as the others retreated, the streams of light momentarily marking their exit--a thick network of filters. "Aneira?" she repeated the impossible name.
Lirum nodded. "It was part of Gongora's spell. My soul and Aneira's memories together looked enough like one of you Immortals to let us through the Mirror, and Gongora used that to destabilize it and draw power for himself. I went back, but it was...very difficult."
She'd known for certain that Gongora had manipulated her memory after finding Sed alive and unharmed, but for Aneira to have survived as well was beyond hope. "Where is he, then?"
"Apparently he's easier for these people to deal with than I am," Lirum said. "Emotion really hurts them. And I can't help it. Aneira's very good at keeping his contained, they think he might be able to help some of their infected." The bitterness returned, painfully sharp. "Also, they all think of me as a child, since I was one when they met me the first time. Thirty years in the human world is only a few days here."
Seth traced the threads of her memory backward, carefully. It was much easier now to access all the thousand years she'd spent as human, and to recognize the breaks that came from Gongora's tampering, but only the most tenuous link remained between the beginning of the thousand years and the time she knew she'd lived here. After spending so long recovering from Gongora, it was a painfully frustrating discovery, especially if the fate of the human world was hanging on her ability to convince her people to spare it. "Why did they send us?" she asked Lirum. "Do you know? Why can't I remember?"
"I know that it's almost impossible to bring memories of this world into human form," Lirum said. "I couldn't do it at all. They seemed to expect you'd remember soon enough once you were here, though."
All right, then, Seth thought, determined, and pressed harder into her past.
"If it helps at all," Lirum added, pensively, "I think the one who's in charge here might be your father, or something like it. He was--he hoped you'd come back. They called him City-Father of Balmore."
Something snapped into place, and Seth froze, remembering.
"We can't be certain how much of anything you'll remember," her city-father reminded them all, not for the first time, and his aura prickled with stress. That wasn't infection; there was no one who was not on edge, these days. Seth pulsed reassurance to him, and he acknowledged absently.
Her companions were strong and brilliant representatives from the domains most affected, and Seth didn't believe there was anything in the other world that could overcome such a group.
Kaim of Argonar, a powerful Defender who had come through the first two waves from the other world at close range without any symptoms of infection.
His close associate Sarah, a weave-healer from Sisulart who had watched her fellow healers go mad and tear themselves apart, with more experience at fighting the infection than anyone else still shining.
Ming of Numara, most famous for the beauty of her weaving, but also known for her skill at mediation.
And Gongora, the strongest lightweaver left sane, whose soul-self was brighter than all the rest. Seth was a scout, familiar with the lonely darkness of the Twilight Lands and very good at her job, but she'd never expected to be in company like this. It was just a shame the situation was so desperate.
"As long as you remember to come home again, the rest doesn't matter," her father went on. "You'll be able to tell us what we need to know about this alien world and its inhabitants." He looked at them all, and Seth could feel the warmth of his concern. "Light defend you all," he whispered, and Seth wasn't sure he'd meant it to be heard. "Just come home safe."
The black waves had caught everyone off-guard and unprepared, and for a long while no one had even known their source, until her father and Gongora discovered the cracks that were letting the other world's emotion seep into theirs, letting their light leak into the other world. The lost light was no great danger to their world, since light flowed endlessly from the Center--but dozens of souls had already faded under the impact of black hatred and despair, and more had become infected, battering at everyone who tried to help them, triggering cascades of destruction in the weave of the cities that no one could halt. The flow had to be stopped somehow, but first they needed knowledge of who or what inhabited the other world. All efforts at communication had been fruitless.
The Mirror had been an utterly brilliant piece of weave-work, with which Seth had helped the least of anyone present. She hoped she'd be more use on the other side. They were going to be there for perhaps as long as a light-cycle; it would take that long to refocus after so much light passed through at once. But whatever they had to do, however they had to chain themselves to blend in with the dark, heavy world there, they should be able to hear the call when it was complete.
--And so they had, all five drawn back to the Mirror, except that Gongora, the strongest of them, had gone utterly, irrevocably insane. Seth looked across at the weave that held him now, already beginning to fray under his assault, and felt cold. How could she convince anyone that the human world deserved to live, with this as her example?
Beside her, Lirum pulsed with warm relief. "You do remember! No one will listen to me here at all--they've all been very kind for the sake of my parents, but they think I'm at least half insane and they won't let me out of this prison...quarantine...thing. I hoped maybe they'd listen to you."
Personally, Seth thought Aneira had a much better chance than she did. Her white-winged companion of nine hundred years had always, she now realized, reminded her of home, with his oceans-deep composure. Seth had learned too much anger over the years, too much grief, and she wasn't sure she could get anyone to take her any more seriously than they took Lirum.
But she had to try. Reaching back to her very earliest memories, Seth pushed herself into a calming, repetitive pattern, one of the first things sparklets learned to keep from damaging the light around them.
"How did you end up in Numara?" she asked Lirum, to keep herself distracted. It was the one question Ming, who had otherwise given a fairly detailed account of the girl's life, hadn't been able to answer, saying only that she had appeared unexpectedly a couple of years after the memory loss and addressed the Queen as Aunt Ming.
The violet spark--it really was no stronger than a child's light, Seth realized belatedly--shrank and expanded again in a tired shrug. "At the time, Gongora was watching everyone else too closely. I couldn't get Mother or Father to remember me at all, and it seemed like the safest place to go. I didn't have enough strength to stay disembodied on that side for very long. I hardly had enough to hold together until Father found me."
Seth thought about an eight-year-old child trying to re-embody herself, thought about how hard it had been for the five powerful immortals, and decided that this wasn't helping her in her quest not to be angry. "Your children are very brave," she changed the subject. "We might never have defeated Gongora if not for them."
Lirum's quiet pride was much more soothing. Seth focused herself inward, trying to chase away the seeds of hatred that had rooted in her heart. The trouble was that Gongora had worked so terribly hard to earn every one of them. It was no use telling herself that he wasn't fully responsible for his actions, either, because they'd all had the same difficulties adjusting to human life and he was the only one who'd thought it would be a great idea to kill half the population and take over the world and, incidentally, betray all his own people. She had to wonder how much of the increased trouble here was a direct result of the wars and chaos Gongora had caused.
A stream of light trickled back into the chamber. Seth looked up, hoping Aneira might have come, but it was only the green soul returning. Retha of Balmore, her newly recovered memory identified helpfully, and Seth sent a pulse of greeting. She and Retha had sparked at nearly the same time, and the same city-father had raised them, making them the closest thing to sisters this world had ever had. Retha was a talented lightweaver, if rather timid.
"Oh, you're so much better now!" Retha return-acknowledged her with a relieved sigh. "We sent word to your Aneira, Seth, and he's on his way. Wait a moment, please, I have to repair this."
The weave that kept Gongora's uncontrolled emotion mostly in check was fraying under the darkness already. They'd gotten a little better at weaving containments since Seth had left, but not very much. Retha turned her attention to laying a new shield. "We couldn't even speak to him," she murmured. Speaking with someone necessarily involved coming close enough that any uncontrolled rage or hatred could badly injure a soul, even tear so deep that the one who had approached faded permanently. "There are others in this condition, but we all hoped--at least you're not so badly infected as I thought, Seth."
Retha had always rather admired Gongora, Seth remembered, which hadn't been nearly as disturbing before. Had it really only been one light-cycle here?
Another presence entered through the filters, gleaming white with a suggestion of wings and brimming with the deep, cool compassion Seth had relied upon for nine hundred years--Aneira's soul-self, instantly familiar. She tried to contain her reaction, not wanting to hurt Retha again, but couldn't quite dampen her joy, or the stab of dark memory. Aneira, here and alive and never dead by her hand at all.
"Seth," he whispered, enfolding her in bright warmth. "I couldn't reach you, I tried...is Sed well?"
For a reunion like this, Seth thought even a pirate queen could be forgiven a few tears, but there was no need anymore. "Sed is a famous pirate, and we couldn't have reached the Tower of Mirrors without him. You'd be very proud."
Aneira laughed, a fizzing sparkle alien to this world but not painful. "So I am."
Lirum had waited, quietly warm, beside them, but now she said, "Please, we've got to find a way to separate the worlds, for all our friends' sakes."
Retha put in, "It isn't that anyone wants to harm your people. But we must do something, or this world may collapse entirely, and that would probably damage the dark world just as much as anything we might try."
She was absolutely right, Seth realized, remembering how much damage the light--the magic energy--had been causing to the human world already. But what could they suggest that hadn't already been tried by the desperate soul-folk here?
The mission they'd almost forgotten for a thousand years had been simply to learn about the human world and how its inhabitants dealt with emotion, and they'd done so. Now Seth of Balmore was the only one in either world with the knowledge of both humanity, in all its shame and glory, and the soul-folk, weavers of light.
She wished it were someone else. Ming, who could talk anyone into anything, or Sarah, both of whom knew more about weaving than she did. Light defend them, Kaim might have been a better choice. Seth hadn't felt so unsure of anything since she'd been two hundred years old, and she wasn't enjoying it.
Forcibly calming herself again, she tried to think. All her memories of lightweaving were not only a thousand years old, but also dim with disinterest. It wasn't an art she'd ever liked much. "Retha, none of the lightweavers have been able to contain the emotions at all? What works best?"
Her sister was done with the repair, and floated uncertainly closer. "We've been able to contain the infected soul-folk so far, but none of the shields over the actual cracks hold for long. And we're losing weavers fast, since we have to get close to repair anything. We've tried all the standard protection weaves, and none of them seem to work any better than the others."
Seth pulsed a brief thanks, and thought harder. Every standard weave involved keeping the will as pure as possible, uncolored by even the faint tinges of emotion that were otherwise permissible, because the light tended to react strongly to emotion, which was such a big part of the problem--infected soul-folk trapped like Sarah had been, by light given life by their own despair or hatred. And most of the time, it wasn't confined to attacking only the person infected.
Lirum's children had brought Sarah out of her despair.
When Lirum and Seth had reached through the dissolving Mirror, it had been a different kind of lightweaving altogether, one that no soul would ever dream of attempting, or even be capable of attempting. But maybe it was exactly what they needed.
"Aneira," Seth said, slowly. "Please make sure this doesn't hurt Retha. Lirum?"
The violet spark lit up, eager to help.
"I want to try something. Over here." She approached the shimmering barrier that enclosed Gongora, shoving the returning surge of anger down where she hoped no one could see it. "Were you watching Retha when she wove this?"
Lirum spiked distaste. "I've been inside them before. I don't think I could make one, if that's what you're asking."
Whatever combination of magic and heredity had allowed Lirum to return to a mortal form temporarily, she'd nearly burned herself out doing it, that was obvious just from her pale appearance--and stepping in to help her children and the rest of them several times probably hadn't helped either. "No, you don't have enough light to risk it. But I think you can help me make one."
Hope, like sea spray, brushed across her. "Anything," Lirum said, sincerely.
Seth called to mind the very simplest weave, one that would let her add to another soul's work. "Think about your kids. Think about keeping them safe, think about what it felt like to hold them." Very carefully, she reached to touch Lirum.
It was love, pure as sunlight, that blazed from Lirum, and Seth felt its burn for a moment before she managed to call Sed to mind with equal force. She touched the edges of the barrier that Retha had woven, and fed it with Lirum's love and her own. Protect! she commanded it, and felt the light hum in response, stronger than any weave she'd ever known.
"Dear Light," Retha squeaked, from across the room where Aneira had shielded her. "How did--what did--does it actually work?" She edged in, cautiously, as though Seth and Lirum were mines that might explode if touched, and examined her weave and its new fringework. "It's not degrading anymore," she whispered. "It's actually holding--how did you do that?"
"Please, Seth, do explain," her city-father added, and Seth realized that he had entered during the experiment.
She ran through the calming exercise three more times before she had stopped trembling enough to open her guard and speak, with the composure they would find reassuring. "You sent me to learn of human emotions. The darkness that has flooded our world from theirs is the most destructive, but there are stronger ones that they use to defend against it. I believe we can use them as well."
The relief that flooded the room was not solely the product of the emotion-infected souls. "Very well done, my Seth," her father whispered, and if it wasn't Lirum's blazing love, Seth knew it was closer than most souls ever permitted themselves. "Very well done, indeed."
Being assigned as First Defender of the multiple chasms that linked her world invisibly to the human world had a few advantages, not least of which was that she could slip through for a few moments at a time to check on everyone. Embodiment was out of the question until a new Mirror was properly focused, which might take as long as another light-cycle, but just looking wasn't so hard now that Seth had the trick of it from Lirum.
The weaves had worked to block the flow of darkness in, though there was still a slow and hopefully harmless seep of light into the human world. In spite of their success, most soul-folk were avoiding Seth, Lirum, and Aneira, as potentially contaminated no matter how useful they'd proved.
Seth couldn't say she minded much. They all seemed flat and uninteresting after living a thousand years with the intensity of human emotion, and the three of them were working out new ways to guard themselves without rejecting emotion entirely.
Nothing had yet shown any effect on the infected souls, but Seth was hopeful. A light-cycle wasn't all that long to wait, and she rather thought her father could do it faster this time. Besides, there would be more company within a few days, relatively speaking; she had triple-checked and confirmed that the vivid light she could see from all the mortals who'd been at the Tower of Mirrors would give them each the ability to cross the worlds, once they were forcibly disembodied. Their children, if any, might be somewhat problematic, but Lirum was working on that, determined to see her grandchildren in person.
It wasn't immortality. They would live no longer than any other soul here, and no one knew what might come next here any better than in the darker world. But really, Seth thought it was as good an ending as anyone could hope for.
Queen Ming and King Jansen, Seth thought, amused, and made a mental note not to forget to check in, frequently. She didn't want to miss the fun.