The novel picks up just where Fire Sea left off. Alfred jumps into Death's Gate as Haplo's ship passes through it, and finds himself in a stasis room like the one he woke up in; in fact, he believes he's on Arianus. Tired, he decides to put himself back to sleep... Only to find someone in "his" stasis chamber. And then to find a bunch of strangers in all the stasis chambers. And then to see them wake up. Alfred has stumbled across a cache of actually-living Sartan, and not just any Sartan; he is on Chelestra, the World of Water, and the chamber he has dropped into contains Samah, the ruler of the Council of Seven— nominally, the leader of all remaining Sartan.
Meanwhile, Haplo is attempting to ready his ship as quickly as possible so he can avoid speaking to Xar. He sent ahead a letter that lied about the state of Abarrach, claiming he found an entirely dead world; he covered up the truth about the necromancy out of fear of what Xar would do with it. Xar catches up with Haplo, and Haplo confesses nearly everything about the world. He accepts harsh punishment for betraying and doubting his lord. Xar sends Haplo's ship on through Death's Gate. The arrival on Chelestra isn't a very glorious one; for some reason, Chelestra's seawater has the effect of totally nullifying all rune-magic, even erasing Haplo's tattoos and the carvings on his steering stone. His ship disintegrates in minutes, whereupon he discovers another odd fact: Chelestran seawater is breathable, just like air. Cold and wet, though not particularly thirsty, he clings to a spot of wreckage and tries to figure out what to do next.
The narrative is also interwoven with the personal diary of Grundle, daughter and heir to the leaders of Chelestra's dwarven population. Unlike most worlds, here the mensch have made peace and live (mostly) in harmony. Grundle's two best friends are the daughters of the elven and human peoples (Sabia and Alake, respectively). The mensch, at the moment, are planning a migration. Chelestra has landmasses they call seamoons ("durnai" to the Sartan) scattered liberally throughout its watery interior, but its seasun is migratory, and this particular seamoon is about to freeze over. They have assembled a series of giant submarines, the sun-chasers, but just as Grundle is about to christen them (with a lock of her hair instead of a champagne bottle), something destroys them: foul, oozing black serpents with red glowing eyes. These serpents demand that the daughters of each royal family be surrendered to them. The parents plan to refuse, but Grundle, Alake, and Sabia choose to leave on their own. Grundle and Alake meet up with "Sabia" and leave in a submersible; it is quickly revealed that Sabia's fiance, Devon, has actually replaced her. It is this submarine, sailing into almost certain death, that stumbles across Haplo.
Once they arrive at Draknor, however, the serpents (which Haplo calls dragon-snakes) make a total about-face: they claim that they are here only to help the mensch, and ply the three with mountains of gifts generated from thin air. When they find out about Haplo, however, they are ecstatic; their leader, the Royal One, assures him that they would love to help him conquer this world, or all four worlds, or anything he desires. Haplo finds himself distinctly nervous; the runes on his body, which glow in times of danger, are at full force, and every danger sense he has urges him to flee from their presence. When Haplo asks them who they are and who created them, the Royal One whispers, "You did, Patryn." But the dragons swear fealty, and that is all that matters. Haplo, with his new allies, returns to the mensch. The news that Sabia has killed herself in despair does not stop the dragon-snakes from instantly reassembling the sun-chasers, and the migration continues as planned, though with a new target: the Chalice, Chelestra's only landmass permanently inhabited... By the Sartan.
Alfred is having a hard time adjusting to life with his people for several reasons. One, Haplo's dog is there with him. Two, Samah manages to find out that the Patryn threat has reawakened, and is already beginning to plan a counter-offensive. Three, there are many secrets the Sartan are hiding: such as how the Chamber of the Damned, with which Alfred is so intimately acquainted, is actually the Seventh Gate, from which the Sartans performed the Sundering. Samah and his followers knew about the Higher Power, but deliberately ignored it, something Alfred finds unconscionable. Furthermore, those few Sartans who objected to the plan were actually cast into the Labyrinth with the Patryns, where they were almost certainly fallen upon and slaughtered. And, finally, Alfred himself has changed— partially due to his time with the mensch on Arianus, but mostly because of his time with Haplo. He can no longer see the Patryns as a vicious, hated enemy. It is customary for Sartan to reveal their private Sartan names to each other, but Alfred continues to go by his human pseudonym, a fact that partially exasperates and partially amuses Samah's wife, Orla, whom Alfred is slowly falling in love with.
The mensch arrive at the Chalice and attempt to negotiate for living space, but Samah is having none of it; he deals with them as if with willful children refusing to go to bed, and is astonished when they treat him as an equal: with dignity and respect, but refusing to be bullied. He is also distressed at their allies: Haplo, the evil dangerous Patryn, and the dragon-snakes, who attacked the Sartan thousands of years ago and forced them into hibernation. When asked who had created them, the dragon-snakes responded: "You did, Sartan." Samah refuses to compromise, and the mensch, reluctantly, turn to military force. They will use the dragon-snakes to burrow through the Chalice's landmass, bringing seawater in to temporarily neutralize the Sartans' magic, allowing the mensch to invade peacefully.
Haplo returns to Draknor to explain the plan, with Devon, Grundle, and Alake following him in a second submersible. He explains the plan, but refuses the dragon-snakes' alterations, which would lead to increased casualties on both sides— even though those casualties would be to mensch and Sartan, populations whose well-being he doesn't care about and, to some extent, is required by Xar's orders to disregard. The mensch overhear the conversation (conveniently, it has been carried out in the human language) but do not overhear the Royal One's orders to have them killed and their bodies returned to their parents, making the coming conquest anything but bloodless.
To Haplo's surprise, Alfred appears with the dog. In the presence of this Sartan enemy, Haplo admits what he dares not say to anyone else: the dragon-snakes are not his servants. They grow fat on chaos, fear, hatred, confusion, despair; they are using him, using everyone, in an attempt to destroy all the four worlds. Even when Samah teleports in, spewing hatred and vitriol, Haplo holds to his course. He and Samah fight, each attempting to take each other prisoner, and Samah wins with the help of Chelestra's seawater, but all events are halted when the dragon-snakes begin to attack the mensch. Haplo rushes to their rescue, magicless though he is, while Alfred counters Samah. Haplo is unable to save Alake's life and looks to be doomed himself when a huge, majestic green and golden dragon appears; it slays the Royal One and fends off the other dragon-snakes. Haplo, staggering back to the beach in search of this incredible magic, finds only Alfred unconscious on the beach. Grundle, who saw him transform, insists that Alfred was the dragon, but no one believes it— not even Alfred himself.
Samah has won. Haplo is imprisoned, though with the seawater rising, he won't be for long. Alfred is sentenced by the Council to be exiled into the Labyrinth for his crimes, and Orla chooses to go with him rather than remain with her people; either way, she will be stripped of her magic as her punishment. Devon and Grundle, no longer the children he first met, wish him luck and Grundle gives him her journal before they are returned to their parents. Haplo settles back in his cell; he knows, now, what he must do. The dragon-snakes— deceptive, cunning, whispering only what the listener wants to hear, growing fat on fear— are who he must defeat.
Written on 5th September 2008 by Ant.
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