Haplo takes a submersible back to Draknor to retrieve his ship. He finds Samah there— wet, haggard, and lost. The leader of the Council has opened Death's Gate, allowing the dragon-snakes free access to all the four worlds. Haplo decides he is too tired to physically capture Samah and uses his ship to return to the Nexus through the now more easily-travelled Death's Gate, where he makes his report on what he has found. Haplo explains the entire tale: the mensch, the Sartan, and the dragon-snakes, who inspired fear in him greater than even the Labyrinth... because he at least knew the Labyrinth could be defeated. Xar is much less sanguine about the serpents' supposed invincibility. He assigns Haplo to take Bane back to Arianus, where he will activate the Kicksey-winsey and continue to foment chaos as he did before; he will then wait there for Xar's orders, as Xar will be going to Abarrach to learn necromancy. This is Haplo's last chance to prove himself loyal.
Haplo leaves angrily and takes a walk. Standing before the Final Gate, he contemplates going back into the Labyrinth— something no living Patryn other than Lord Xar has ever accomplished. He wants to look for Alfred so they can return to the Chamber of the Damned to get some answers— and to bring his lord to give him proof, as well. Haplo is derailed by Zifnab, however, who admits to actually being a Sartan and, with his dragon (one of the true "dragons" of Pryan, as opposed to a dragon-snake,) is on his way to Chelestra, answering a race-wide summons put out by Samah. Samah, Zifnab says, intends to go to Abarrach and learn the secret of necromancy. He also reveals that the woman left Haplo because she was pregnant, and that their child is now somewhere in the Labyrinth. But Zifnab advises him (in between bouts of gibberish, non sequiturs and reminiscences on Debbie Does Dallas) not to go in until he has activated the Kicksey-winsey. Bane has spied on this and tells Xar, lying that Haplo said he intended to "prove you wrong," but revealing that Haplo warned Zifnab to leave so that Xar wouldn't find the Sartan. Xar considers this treachery past the time for punishment and orders the child to kill Haplo once his job is done.
On Drevlin, the mood is somber; the Kicksey-winsey has stopped, totally stopped, for the first time in history, and no one knows why. Limbeck, now High Froman and the leader of a race-wide dwarven revolt against the "Welf" occupation of Drevlin, is sure that it is Welf treachery. He has become a hard, cruel leader, much to Jarre's dismay. (A recurring symbol is his glasses: he has new ones that correct for his massive myopia but hurt his head abysmally; Jarre liked him better when he was blind and idealistic.) When Haplo lands, Limbeck is quick to enlist his assistance, and between the two of them and Jarre's memory of Alfred's mausoleum, they puzzle out where the control center for the entire Kicksey-winsey must be. To reach it, however, they must sneak through the Factree, which the elves have taken as their home base. At the control center, they find an automaton who asks for instructions, but Haplo's runes have started to warn him. Not understanding why, he nevertheless trusts his instincts and the group flees the room without Limbeck. Bane, Haplo, and Jarre are quickly captured by pursuing elven forces, led by a strange, red-eyed captain named Sang-drax— a serpent whose name is elven for "dragon-snake" and possibly the one who met with Xar before Haplo arrived home. Limbeck remains unfound by the elves, and wanders for a while before stumbling on a room in which he sees an incredible, hopeful sight: humans, elves and dwarves, sitting and conversing in peace and harmony. (He overlooks their distinctive red eyes and the terror they make him feel.) Inflamed by optimistic vision, he immediately forgets it when he overhears (from the serpent-elves carrying Haplo away) that Jarre has been captured, and goes to plan the war.
Haplo, Bane, and Jarre are taken to the Imperanon, the elven emperor's castle, where Emperor Agah'ran hatches a plan to do away with King Stephen and Queen Anne, using Bane as his willing co-conspirator. Agah'ran wants to finish the hostilities quickly, as he is fighting three wars: against the humans, against the "Gegs," and against his own son, Prince Rees'ahn, who has been leading a rebellion for several years. Stephen and Anne (who have since had a daughter,) and the Lady Iridal (invited there by the wizard Trian,) receive the news that Bane is alive from a human slave who has been allowed to escape the elven capital. The elves presumably will want a human surrender in exchange for Bane's life— very few people know of his true nature— but his three parents know Bane must be the one pulling the strings (and the royal family certainly doesn't want him back.) They also realize that it would look very bad if they failed to attempt a rescue, considering the rumors that he is illegitimate, but King Stephen understandably doesn't actually want Bane back; he only wants to protect their work at making peace with Rees'ahn. Iridal decides to go on and rescue her son herself, and King Stephen grants her a fortnight to do so; after that, he moves on to meeting with Rees'ahn and leaves Bane to his fate. On the way, she drops by a Kir monastery and picks up her sole helper: Hugh the Hand, whom Alfred revived with necromancy without remembering he did it. Hugh is slumming, a dirty drunk, unable to return to his former line of work: since being revived (and as himself, not the shambling dead of Abarrach,) he finds it impossible to kill, especially since everyone loses their nerve before hiring him. Hugh agrees on the condition that Iridal helps him find Alfred once they're finished. Before they leave, Trian privately reminds Hugh of his honor— Hugh accepted a contract to kill Bane, and his honor should compel him to carry it out. The royal family wants to use Iridal's rescue to see that Bane is killed to protect their daughter, and their world, from what he would do.
Hugh and Iridal go to Skurvash, the island where the Brotherhood of the Hand, a guild of assassins, makes its base. As "the Hand," Hugh is of the second-highest rank possible to attain, with only Ciang the Arm as his superior (and possibly none his equal.) It is Ciang he asks for help, and she secures him passage to the elvish capitol. There he seeks the aid of the Kenkari, an elven religious clan whose Cathedral of the Albedo is used as a repository of elven souls, which supposedly strengthens elven magic, particularly their own powerful strain. From there Hugh and Iridal slip into the Imperanon, but Iridal, blinded by love, doesn't see the trap Bane has laid for her. For Iridal's life, Hugh agrees to kill King Stephen and Queen Anne; Bane (with Haplo's dog) will go along to ensure success and take the human throne. Haplo, in the meantime, chases Sang-drax, who is "rescuing" Jarre, but he is taken by the dragon-snakes and mentally tortured. The Keepers from the Cathedral, however, have been compelled by the dead spirits to rescue Haplo, and they do so. The Keeper of the Soul is able to drive off the dragon-snakes because he is no longer afraid of what they represent.
The Keepers give Haplo a book written in Sartan, Dwarven, Elvish and Human— instructions to give the automaton under Drevlin— and send him down to Drevlin on a phantom dragon that they summon. They also ask him where his soul is— he has one, clearly, but evidently it is not with him. He has no idea what they're talking about. Iridal goes with him to stop Hugh and her son. They find Sang-drax's dragonship (he is no longer on it) and the phantom dragon breaks one of its wings; Haplo jumps onto the crippled vessel and rescues Jarre, but finds himself in the middle of a human-galley-slave rebellion fomented by Sang-drax. Haplo uses his magic to paralyze everyone mid-fight and tells them how foolish this battle is: the human and elven crewers will need to work together if they want to save their ship. He carries Jarre's badly injured form and teleports them both to the Factree, where Jarre is unfortunately seen by a dwarf who doesn't believe that she isn't dead. The dwarf rushes to inform Limbeck, and Limbeck promptly decides to lead the dwarves to kill elves as vengeance for Jarre's apparent death.
Haplo heals Jarre and they fail to prevent the dwarves from launching at the elves, but both sides come to a halt when the statue opens and Sang-drax and the other dragon-snakes rise out from the tunnels, disguised as fellow dwarves who shout bloodthirsty encouragement to the others. Jarre recognizes them by their eyes and tears off Limbeck's glasses; Haplo attacks one of the "dwarves" to force out the serpent's true form. However, the serpents all shed their bodies and begin attacking the dwarves, starting a chaotic battle of dwarf versus serpent and elf versus dwarf, with both mensch sides blaming the other for the serpents' presence. Haplo and Sang-drax fight also, and though neither succeeds in slaying the other, both sustain injuries (Sang-drax's eye, and Haplo's heart-rune, the center of his personal and magical identity) that will never quite heal. Thankfully, Limbeck finally sees where this is leading— blood, death, terror— and forces his dwarves to surrender. In response, the dragon-snakes begin to attack the Kicksey-winsey itself... And, realizing that this machine is their mutual lifesblood, the elves and dwarves immediately ally in its defense. A crippled dragonship also manages to land there— the ship that Haplo left to work together— and both the elves and humans join in. This marks the first time in Arianus's recorded history that humans, dwarves, and elves have fought side-by-side.
Meanwhile, Hugh and Bane are on their way to the Seven Fields, where Prince Rees'ahn's rebellion began; he is returning to sign a historic alliance with King Stephen and Queen Anne against the elven emperor. Bane demands that Hugh take a final contract— to kill Haplo, and tell him that Xar wants him dead— and Hugh agrees, just to shut him up. Hugh deliberately botches the assassination of Stephen in an attempt to get himself killed, though the dog saves him by leaping onto him and causing confusion. Bane takes advantage of this and sinks a sword into Stephen's back, determined to have the throne for himself. Then he turns on Queen Anne— only to find himself slowly asphyxiating. Iridal has finally arrived to see her son's true nature. As Stephen and Anne's own child died— strangled, unable to breathe the air of the High Realm— so does Prince Bane meet his end. Stephen's life, however, is saved by Trian, and Iridal leaves for the High Realm with Bane's body.
Hugh returns to the Cathedral of the Albedo, where he has promised to give his soul (which, after all, has gone on and then returned and thus is of great value to the Keepers.) But he is forbidden because his soul still has the mortal bonds of a contract, so must agree the Keeper of the Soul's new terms; the dead commanded the Keeper to accept the contracted life in place of Hugh's— Hugh must kill Haplo.
Written on Monday 8th September 2008 by Antony Jones.
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