Abbot Doren, head of an obscure island monastery, flees to the city of Scree with the apprentice Mayl. They are hiding from a murderous monk, Jackdaw, who has thrown in his lot with the shadow Azaer. Meanwhile King Emin of Narkang also sets out for Scree, lured by the prospect of hunting down the man who betrayed him for Azaer several years before.
Lord Isak, the new Lord of the Farlan, has left Narkang, determined to return home before news of his predecessor’s death encourages rebellion. He carries with him two Crystal Skulls, given to him by a sect within the Knights of the Temples who believe him to be the Saviour of Mankind, and, imprisoned in his mind, Aryn Bwr, the last king of the Elves, who had hoped to use Isak to return to life and continue his war against the Gods.
When they reach Farlan territory, Isak’s small party is ambushed by the Certinse family, which includes the new Duke of Lomin. Isak’s men are badly outnumbered, but they are saved by a religious sect called the Brethren of the Sacred Teachings, led by Suzerains Torl and Saroc and Chaplain Distan, the man who uncovered the Malich conspiracy.
During the battle Carel is badly injured and Isak realises there are others whose association with him is putting them in unnecessary danger. He dispatches the failed Harlequin, Mihn, and Morghien, the man of many spirits, to the Yeetatchen homeland, to fetch Xeliath, the white-eye girl who was crippled by a stroke when Isak’s fractured destiny was tied to her own. She too carries a Crystal Skull.
Isak is met by Ilumene, the man King Emin is hunting, and Ilumene, pretending still to be in the service of the king, requests Isak’s presence in Scree. Isak initially ignores him and continues home, but he knows he will have business in Scree soon enough, as it is the nearest stronghold of the White Circle, the sisterhood who tried to enslave him in Narkang.
In Scree, the vampire Zhia Vukotic continues to masquerade as a member of the White Circle, and starts to develop a powerbase for herself there. She takes control of the sisterhood’s recently recruited mercenary armies in anticipation of a Farlan assault, while also knowingly taking a Farlan spy, Legana, under her wing. Further south, Kastan Styrax returns to Thotel, having killed Isak’s predecessor, Lord Bahl. Thanks to Azaer’s warning, he manages to put down a coup within his own ranks. Styrax also comes to an agreement with the highest-ranking Chetse general, paving the way for the recruitment of Chetse legions. During the battle he is contacted by Isherin Purn, a Menin necromancer in Scree, who has sensed an artefact of immense power appearing in the city. He requests help to secure it, but Styrax, preoccupied with his injured son, resists the temptation, instead sending only a few soldiers to scout the situation in his place.
Back in Scree, the novice Mayel and his criminal cousin discover that the strange theatre group who have taken residence there are not all they appear to be – especially the minstrel who leads them, Rojak. Isak has finally reached Tirah, where he is to receive the blessing of the Farlan chief religious council, and issues a summons to all Farlan ranking noblemen, before making plans to go to Scree himself. King Emin arrives in Scree with members of the Brotherhood, his band of agents, and one, Doranei, makes accidental contact with Zhia Vukotic, who takes a shine to him. Zhia has rebuffed Rojak’s advances at the theatre run by Azaer’s disciples just as her brother, Koezh Vukotic announces his presence in the city.
Kastan Styrax’s soldiers arrive in Scree and are met by Nai, the necromancer’s acolyte, only to be ambushed by King Emin, who has been tricked into believing one of the soldiers is Ilumene. Zhia, in her White Circle guise, arrives to keep the peace and takes Nai and two of the soldiers prisoner. By now tensions in the city are significantly raised: Siala, Scree’s ruler, has declared martial law, there is an unnatural summer heatwave, and there is growing resentment towards the Gods.
Isak arrives just as the madness on the streets increases a notch. He saves Mayel from a blood-crazed mob, and a man is beaten to death for wearing what appears to be a priest’s robe. Isak spots Ilumene forcing another man into the now-deserted Temple of Death.
Two separate armies arrives on Scree’s outskirts, while inside, the White Circle appears to have lost control of its mercenary forces. The Witch of Llehden and the Demi-God Fernal arrive in Scree and encounter Isak, and working together they realise that the new theatre at the city’s heart has been imbued with a spell that is increasing the tensions in the city and driving the natives to madness.
In the south, Lord Styrax has also been busy: he has double-crossed the daemon he’s been dealing with for several years, freeing himself of its influence, while finding the opportunity to demonstrate his peerless martial skills to the Chetse generals – and he ‘accidentally’ demolishes the great Temple of the Sun in Thotel, revealing the hiding place of one of the Crystal Skulls.
Back in Scree, all order has collapsed, and even well-trained soldiers are hard-pressed to walk the streets without being overwhelmed by the crazed mobs. Isak, discovering that Isherin Purn was instrumental in Lord Bahl’s death, insists on attacking the Red Palace, where Siala has secreted the necromancer. He manages the attack, but is cut off from the bulk of his army by the mobs and forced into a desperate last-stand defence of the Temple Plaza, which the Knights of the Temples are trying to save from attack.
While they are fighting in the north of the city, Rojak puts the next part of his plan in motion. He sets the southern part of Scree on fire, to drive the mobs towards Isak. He ensures that Abbot Doren announces his presence in the city. And he brings King Emin and Zhia Vukotic down on himself. By this point Rojak is close to death, having tied in his life to the spell he is working on the city. Rojak’s troops are driven off by Koezh’s undead troops, and Abbot Doren is killed by Zhia. King Emin retrieves the Crystal Skull that Abbot Doren had brought from his monastery, trying to keep it safe from Jackdaw, and finally manages to kill Rojak, though the minstrel is dying anyway.
Back on the Temple Plaza, Isak’s massively outnumbered troops are pushed back until they are defending the steps of the Temple of Death. In desperation he reaches for any help he can find – and the Reapers, the five violent Aspects of Death, answer his call. They go berserk and start slaughtering the mobs just as Rojak dies and the spell is broken. Once he realises they are saved, Isak manages to stop the Aspects killing anyone else and dismisses them before accompanying the leader of his allies into the temple to give thanks – but as they do so, they’re attacked by a man possessed by a daemon. Isak responds savagely, but manages to stop himself from killing the man when he recognises him as his missing father.
Several days later, while the fires in Scree slowly burn out, three of Azaer’s disciples are trekking across the obliterated city. In the cellar of the abbot’s house they find a woman, once a mercenary in Zhia’s employ, now a helpless – pregnant – amnesiac. She is holding a book, a journal written by Zhia Vukotic’s insane younger brother Vorizh, which may lead them to a prize far richer than the fabled Crystal Skull they sacrificed to get it.