Arianus, the World of Air, is composed entirely of porous floating islands, aligned in three basic altitudes. In the Low Realm, the dwarves (called "Gegs", an elven word for "insects") live on the continent Drevlin and cheerfully serve the giant Kicksey-winsey, a city-sized machine that is the source of all water in Arianus. In the Mid Realm, elves and humans have warred for centuries with each other and amongst themselves for water, status, and advantage. Above them all in the High Realm live the Mysteriarchs, isolationist human wizards of the Seventh House rank. They were some of the most powerful wizards of their kind, leaving fellow humans behind in their disgust for the constant warfare, but they never equalled the likes of the missing Sartan and Patryn races.
As the novel opens, the Lord of the Nexus instructs a follower on his task in Arianus. The follower will go to Arianus and discreetly spy against the Sartan, the race that has long imprisoned their people before mysteriously disappearing. There, the follower will spread chaos in preparation for the Lord's arrival, never revealing that he is actually one of the powerful Patryn race. When the time comes, the Lord will conquer all of the worlds and reunite them as one under his rule. The Patryns will have their revenge against their Sartan enemies.
On Arianus, an assassin named Hugh the Hand is hired by King Stephen, nominally the ruler of all humanity, to kill Crown Prince Bane. Bane is not actually Stephen's child, nor that of Stephen's wife, Anne; he was switched at birth for the child of the mysteriarch Sinistrad, and speaks to his real father through a feather talisman magically charmed to make others dote on him despite their disapproval of the changeling. Bane is a devious child—charming, but ambitious, and totally self-possessed. Hugh takes Bane away from Stephen's fortress, and the two are followed by Bane's manservant, the gangly, balding Alfred Montbank, whose greatest talents seem to be fainting at the first sign of danger and tripping over anything in his path (and several things that aren't).
At this time on Drevlin, a Geg is on trial for the crime of thinking too much. Limbeck Bolttightner seems obsessed with the question of why, but his most heretical belief is that the god-like Welves, who land in their giant flying dragonships for tributes of water every month or so, are not actually gods at all. He once found a (W)elf dead in a crashed dragonship, and even his girlfriend, Jarre, won't believe that a god could actually die. Sentenced to death by being thrown off the continent on a hang-glider, Limbeck manages to crash-land on a smaller island some distance down, where he encounters an injured man whose damaged ship is covered with brilliantly shining runes. The Kicksey-winsey inadvertently destroys the ship, but Limbeck manages to rescue the man in time. He believes the injured man is also a god, one he can pit against the Welves, so he brings the unconscious man along as he rides back up to Drevlin in one of the Kicksey-winsey's help-hands. Joining them is a dog who refuses to leave the "god"'s side despite its own injuries.
Haplo—Limbeck's god and the follower from the prologue—awakens in Drevlin not long before Hugh, Bane and Alfred crash-land there as well. It becomes clear that Haplo's dog is more than the average canine; he is very intelligent, and Haplo can hear through his ears. Limbeck, hearing about the "other gods", takes Haplo to investigate, but chaos erupts, with the entire group split up and reassembling. All but Alfred and Jarre are quickly arrested; those two take a trip into the tunnels under the Kicksey-winsey, where they come across a room filled with glass coffins containing sad, beautiful people. This, Alfred says, is where he came from. Alfred is quickly arrested as well, though Jarre escapes. In prison, Alfred creeps over to the sleeping Haplo and confirms, to his horror, his suspicion of Patryn runes that were hidden by Haplo's bandages.
The rulers of the Gegs present the prisoners to the Welves as false gods, with Limbeck thrown in for free in the hopes that the Welves will execute the lot. Various circumstances (a mutiny against the tyrannical elven captain, a dwarven rebellion against their overlords) leads to Bane hiring the ship to take him up into the High Realm, where his father will supposedly reward them all. The new captain of the ship agrees to the terms.
In the High Realm, Haplo makes his decision: he will take Prince Bane back to the Nexus with him, as the Lord of the Nexus will almost certainly be able to make use of him. Hugh becomes smitten with Sinistrad's wife, Iridal, once a good and noble woman who thought her husband-to-be was joking when he told her, flat out, that he was an evil man. Limbeck agonizes over his revelations concerning the oppressive (W)elves and eventually decides to lead his peace-loving, optimistic people to war.
Haplo is prepared to make his move when he hears, through the dog, Bane confront Alfred about being a Sartan. Bane has seen Alfred work Sartan rune-magic, something no one else on Arianus—not even the powerful Mysteriarchs—could do. In fact, Alfred's rune-magic brought Bane back from near-death. Haplo prepares to confront Alfred, but they both realize a magical battle would draw too much attention, something Haplo's Lord ordered him to avoid at all costs. Haplo instead satisfies himself by abducting Bane as planned. Hugh, in the meantime, attacks and kills Sinistrad to free Iridal and her son from Sinistrad's evil influence, but Hugh dies in the process. Sinistrad's pet quicksilver dragon, freed of his master's mind-control, begins to destroy the castle, but Alfred subdues it with his magic. Alfred and Iridal give chase to Haplo, but they are too late to recover Bane. Haplo returns to the Nexus to prepare for his next journey: to Pryan, the World of Fire.
Written on Tuesday 5th August 2008 by Antony Jones.
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