It is quickly apparent that this is no petty reward for inconveniencing the competition. Usan and two other nobles, Sufan Noyoka and Pacula Harada, are planning an expedition to the legendary “ghost world” Balhadorha, and they need an adventurer of great skill and experience to guide them through whatever unknown perils await. Usan really did hear Earl’s friend’s dying confession, in which he revealed that Dumarest had killed the chelach almost single-handedly using his nearly superhuman reflexes, and she realized such a man could be just what they need. Finding Balhadorha and its mythical treasure has a different, critical importance to each of the three nobles.
Finding Balhadorha has been Sufan’s lifelong quest. Usan has a terminal disease which local science cannot cure, and while she is wealthy by local standards she needs far more money to afford effective treatment on a more advanced world. Pacula is a widow whose then-four-year-old daughter Culpea disappeared in an aircraft accident eight years ago while Pacula and her family were inspecting land they purchased from Sufan (lands which Sufan presumably sold them to finance his quest). Culpea’s body was never recovered but there were no ransom demands so she has long been presumed dead. Pacula’s family has finally cut off the resources she needs to continue searching, but Pacula intends to never give up until she finds Culpea or proof of her death.
Having little choice, Dumarest agrees to help. In addition to the three-man crew of the starship Sufan has chartered, they are joined by Marek, a problem-solving genius with suicidal tendencies. They travel to Chamelard, a barren, seldom-visited world with a biotech lab and not much else, to pick up the final member of their party. Sufan reveals that Balhadorha lies within the Hichen Cloud, a nearly unnavigable region of space, and they will be purchasing a product of the labs to assist: a nameless blind woman they dub Embira who sees gravitational mass and energy fields the way normal humans see visible light. However, the lab fabricates a delay in releasing the woman to Sufan, and Earl smells a trap. They steal Embira and notice they are pursued not only by security personnel from the lab intent on retrieving her, but also a group of anonymous men who seem intent only on capturing Dumarest. They escape and flee into the Hichen cloud where the possibility of pursuit is remote.
Among countless other seemingly trivial details we learn during the hazardous trip toward the center of the cloud where Balhadorha supposedly lies are that Pacula and Embira bear such a striking resemblance to one another that they could be sisters, and that Pacula’s husband was a non-native of Teralde who could see in total darkness. Another such detail is that Marek is so self-destructive because he caused the death of his family. When they caught a deadly plague, he used his problem-solving powers to deduce the cure. He acquired the untested antibiotic from the Cyclan, but his family died anyway. This connection makes Dumarest suspicious but he quickly realizes that, although Marek blames himself for his family’s death, he also despises the Cyclan for handing over a “cure” they knew would probably fail with little more than a “use at your own risk” disclaimer (and which they probably wanted to field test on human subjects just on the off chance it might work anyway).
Finally, we learn that a Cyber reached Teralde mere hours too late to assist the locals with Dumarest’s capture, having traced him there from Laconde. When Cyber Khai contacts the Cyclan central intelligence with news of Dumarest’s recent whereabouts and the likely plans of those with whom he has recently associated, they instantly point him to Chamelard. (Although a Cyber does not arrive there in time, and we already know Dumarest has avoided the local agents they arranged to hold him there).
The party finds Balhadorha, which contains a single, somewhat alien city and little else. The ship’s captain is killed in his haste to blast his way into the seemingly impenetrable city, and Dumarest’s more subtle, resourceful attempts also fail. The ship’s navigator, now in command, insists they leave and return later with better equipment, but he dies (seemingly of heart failure) before he can press the issue. Between Dumarest’s intuition, Marek’s problem-solving genius and Embira’s special sight, the party eventually enters the city. They find evidence of earlier failed expeditions, and finally the “treasure”: a mysterious, time-dilating, hallucinogenic mist that sustains organic life while giving the totally convincing illusion that one has achieved one’s greatest desire (in Dumarest’s case, the illusion that he has finally found Earth). If it weren’t for the fact that Embira’s strange sight somehow renders her immune, they’d all still be there.
Usan, whose condition has been rapidly deteriorating the entire journey, is left behind because the others have no reliable way of searching the mist without being recaptured themselves, and because Earl believes it would be crueler to “rescue” her and have her die on the ship with no money and no hope of a cure than it would be to leave her to her subjective bliss in the mist. The others escape and tell the last surviving crewman (the engineer, who had been waiting at the ship) the tale. Marek tells Dumarest that it isn’t a total bust because even though there was no monetary treasure, Sufan has other associates who will pay well for a discovery of such scientific interest: the Cyclan. Marek knows Sufan associates with them because he met Sufan at a Cyclan lab nine or ten years ago, while Marek was acquiring the failed cure, and Sufan was presumably consulting them for data or predictions about the location of Balhadorha.
Dumarest puts it all together, first telling Pacula that Usan wasn’t the only one who found what she sought at Balhadorha. Pacula has found her daughter; Embira is Culpea.
Dumarest shares his conclusions. Sufan is so obsessed with Balhadorha that he doesn’t care who he harms to find it. Most recently, Dumarest speculates, he murdered the navigator so he couldn’t leave before Sufan made it into the city. Further back, about ten years ago, Sufan gave the Cyclan what data he had assembled about Balhadorha and its probable location, and they told him how to create the navigator he would need to find it. Knowing Pacula’s husband could sense a spectrum beyond that of normal humans, and having confirmed with the Cyclan that her daughter Culpea had inherited this trait and that it would meet the requirements for Hichen Cloud navigation, Sufan kidnapped the girl and sent her to Chamelard. There she was blinded (so her extrasensory powers wouldn’t suffer the distraction of normal vision) and trained. The training was accelerated using slowtime, so Sufan wouldn’t have to wait 30 years for the talent to be sufficiently well-honed to be usable (explaining both why she looks so much like Pacula, and why instead of being a 12-year old girl, she is almost Pacula’s age).
Although Dumarest doesn’t mention it, Sufan’s long association with the Cyclan also explains how the Cyclan knew Dumarest was going to Chamelard based on the sole fact that he was with Sufan. (Fortunately, the Cyclan is so protective of the secret of the Affinity Twin that Sufan has no idea that to capture Dumarest would be worth infinitely more to them than finding an admittedly intriguing “ghost planet”).
Of course, Pacula is more than a little upset with Sufan at this point, and interrupts Dumarest’s explanation (to put it mildly). When the dust settles, Dumarest has killed Sufan. Marek and Pacula (who have occasionally been at each other’s throats through the whole book) have realized it’s one of those “love/hate” things, and that they each have something that can help fill the other’s loss, and they look forward to assisting Embira/Culpea reintegrate into normal society. No definitive answer is forthcoming about who built the city or what purpose the mist served, but as they prepare to embark things have still come to a relatively happy ending (at least for a Dumarest novel).