|“||It’s all that I can give you,
To save both Weyr and Hold.
It’s little I can offer you,
Who paid with dragon gold.
Never in the dramatic history of Pern has there been a more dire emergency than that which faces the young dragonrider Lorana. A mysterious fatal illness is striking dragons. The epidemic is spreading like wildfire . . . and the next deadly cycle of Threadfall is only days away. Somehow, Lorana must find a cure before the dragons-including her own beloved Arith-succumb to the sickness, leaving Pern undefended.
The lyrics of an all-but-forgotten song seem to point toward an answer from nearly five hundred years in the past, when Kitti Ping and her daughter Wind Blossom bred the first dragons from their smaller cousins, the fire-lizards. No doubt the first colonists possessed the advanced technology to find the cure for which Lorana seeks, but over the centuries, that knowledge has been lost. Or has it?
For in the distant past, an aged Wind Blossom worries that the germs that affect the fire-lizards may one day turn on larger prey-and unleash a plague that will destroy the dragons, Pern’s only defenders against Thread. But as her people struggle to survive, Wind Blossom has neither the time nor the resources to expend on a future that may never arrive-until suddenly she uncovers evidence that her worst fears will come true.
Now two brave women, separated by hundreds of years but joined by bonds transcending time, will become unknowing allies in a desperate race against sickness and Threadfall, with nothing less than the survival of all life on Pern at stake.
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In the last turn of the Second Interval, a number of turns after a plague that devastated many holds, blue rider J'trel and his dragon Talith travel to Lemos Hold to report the death of K'nad — his weyrmate of twenty turns — to his next of kin, Lord Holder Carel. While there, he meets Lorana, a recently-orphaned girl who has incredible skills as a Healer, and the ability to hear all dragons. After spending a month with her at Nerat Hold — to allow one of her fire lizard to properly recover from a broken wing — J'trel takes Lorana to Ista Sea Hold, where she will join a ship, the Wind Rider, acting as their Healer. J'trel meets up with Lorana one final time when the Wind Rider docks at the recently-built Half-Circle Sea Hold, before he and Talith — who has developed a bad cough — decide to go Between once and for all.
The Wind Rider soon runs into a storm, and Colfet — a friendly crewman — warns Lorana that another crewman has taken control of the ship and may have plans to assault her. To escape, Colfet and Lorana flee on the Wind Rider's launch. Although they succeed in riding out the first storm, a second storm knocks Lorana overboard. Thinking herself doomed; Lorana tells her two fire-lizards — Gold Garth and Bronze Grenn — to abandon her, which they do — inadvertently travelling Between times.
At another point in time — the end of the First Pass — Wind Blossom is brought by M'hall from the College — what will become the Harper Hall — to Fort Weyr, where Sorka Hanrahan is dying. Aware of the need for cadavers for medical research, Sorka asks Wind Blossom to use her body for this — also to allow her to practice for facial reconstructive surgery for Tieran, a grandson of Ted Tubberman, who was mauled by a Wher in youth, and now works in the College's Drum Tower — before passing away. However, Wind Blossom finds herself unable to operate on Sorka's body. Before she can make any more decisions, Tieran declares an emergency: he has discovered two fire-lizards — Garth and Grenn, their names written on beads around their necks — who are dangerously ill with a mystery disease.
In the Second Interval, Lorana washes ashore near Bayhead Hold, where she is found by dragonriders and taken to Benden Weyr, where she is cared for by Kindan and K'tan, the Weyr Healer. Not long afterwards, Kindan's fire-lizard Valla falls victim to the same disease as Talith, Garth and Grenn, and perishes, resulting in Benden Weyr's remaining fire-lizards being banished to the Southern Continent to prevent the disease spreading. Fearing she may have brought the disease to Benden Weyr, Lorana attempts to leave, only to walk past the Hatching Grounds, and inadvertantly Impresses Arith, the queen dragonet. As time goes on, a number of dragons fall ill across Pern, including Breth, the senior queen at Benden Weyr, who goes Between as a result. Lorana unsuccessfully attempts to prevent her from leaving — using a mental technique she previously used to keep one of her fire-lizards from going Between when badly injured — but in doing so makes contact with another mind. As the Third Pass begins, more dragons fall ill, and many become injured in Threadfall.
In the last days of the First Pass, Wind Blossom wakes with the thought that dragons are in danger — along with several other members of the College — but attributes it to her recent work with the two sickly fire-lizards — one of whom was cured, while the other died upon arrival — whose ownership has not been ascertained. Emorra — Wind Blossom's daughter and the Dean of the College — notes that the beads on the fire-lizards have been made from supplies not existing in their time, suggesting they have come from a future point in time — and indicating that the dragons of the future may be at risk of disease. In time, Wind Blossom travels to Tillek Hold under the pretext of taking a vacation; in reality, she is attempting to make contact with the Dolphins to recover various genetic manipulation equipment thought lost in the Second Crossing.
In the Third Pass, the dragonriders begin struggling as dragons become incapacitated or die as a result of both the sickness and injuries obtained during Threadfall — except at High Reaches Weyr, which cut off outside contact three turns prior. At Benden Weyr, the position of Senior Weyrwoman passes to Tullea, a bad-tempered woman — oddly, she has been this way since Impressing Minith — whose weyrmate B'nik becomes Weyrleader as time goes on. Kindan and Lorana begin searching records — while also aiding sick dragons with K'tan — in the hopes of finding clues on how to deal with the disease, eventually finding records at Fort Weyr indicating some special rooms were built at Benden Weyr — during this time, Kindan also remembers part of a song that appears to reference Lorana. During the search for records, Arith contracts the disease.
Despite Tullea's belief that the rooms aren't important — they aren't mentioned in Benden Weyr's records — the rooms are searched for and eventually found when Salina — the former Senior Weyrwoman — notes they must have been built in plain sight — and as such, not recorded — but hidden by a rockfall. This leads them to a caved-in tunnel located near the Hatching Grounds, which, when excavated, reveal the lost rooms, which they find to contain four vials. In the night, Lorana heads to the rooms, attempting to create a cure from the vials for her ailing Arith. However, Arith has a fatal reaction to the mixture and leaps Between, leaving Lorana alone.
Arith emerges from Between in the First Interval, dying in front of the College. To prevent the infection spreading, her corpse is immediately destroyed with agenothree. Arith's size — along with the Benden Weyr riding harness she was wearing — allows Wind Blossom to determine what point in time the sickness is coming from — dragons having been engineered to gradually increase in size up to a certain point — and discussions begin as to how they will be able to help their descendants cure the disease.
In the Third Pass, Lorana falls into a catatonic state. Kindan remembers the remainder of the song, which references a Healer who «paid with dragon gold», realising it is directed at Lorana, although he still doesn't understand the full meaning. Lorana eventually recovers when K'tan's dragon Drith goes between; able to hear dragons, she wakes in an attempt to stop him leaving.
As time goes on, the large number of sick or dead dragons makes attempts to fight Thread far less effective — at one point, Nuella ends up leading a number of watch-whers against Threadfall over Ruatha at night. K'lior, Weyrleader of Fort Weyr, comes up with a plan to send weyrlings and injured dragons back in time to the abandoned Igen Weyr, where they can recuperate. The plan works successfully — although the riders are strained from being in two places at once — and the other Weyrs send riders for a second expedition.
In the First Interval, it is decided to place the genetic manipulators at Benden Weyr, and a set of rooms are constructed to house them — near a fault line, in the hope that the rooms will be blocked off until they can be discovered by those who need a cure. However, there is a problem: they are only able to store a certain amount of information about genetic manipulation. To allow their descendants to find a cure, they will need to know how the disease is spreading.
In the Third Pass, Lorana returns to the lost rooms with Kindan and K'tan — now Ketan — where they find booklets detailing how to use the equipment in the next room, which remains locked with an excerpt from the song Kindan remembered — now identified as Wind Blossom's Song — placed on it, instructing them to say a certain word to open the door. In time, they realise that they can use the equipment to create a cure, although they are unable to figure out the word to open the door.
At the same time, D'gan — the arrogant Weyrleader of Telgar Weyr — leads nearly his entire Weyr against Threadfall. Without realising it, his dragon Kaloth has fallen ill with the sickness; and all of Telgar Weyr vanishes Between — D'gan's son D'lin attempts to warn Benden Weyr, but fails to picture his destination properly and dies as a result. Lorana feels the dragons being lost Between and attempts to pull them back — pulling on the power of all the remaining dragons — and inadvertantly makes contact with Wind Blossom, telling her how the sickness spreads.
In the First Interval, Wind Blossom informs Emorra that she made contact with someone in the future, and that the sickness is spread by air. Emorra plans to write a song — Wind Blossom's Song — to ensure that the person knows what to ask. Wind Blossom passes away, and the rooms are completed at Benden Weyr, with «Air» being used as a codeword to lock the final room. As a final gift, Emorra and Tieran — revealed to be Lorana's distant ancestors — leave behind a trinket made from Arith's riding harness, containing pictures of Wind Blossom, Tieran and Grenn.
In the Third Pass, Lorana opens the locked room, and a cure is soon developed — Lorana also discovers what killed Arith: one of the vials was designed to genetically modify a wher into a dragon. Tullea's dragon Minith is injected with the cure first, so that she will pass on the immunity to her upcoming clutch. Finally, the true reason for High Reaches Weyr closing itself off — and for Tullea's bad temper — becomes clear: they have been hosting a timed-back Minith and her clutch until they were old enough to fight Thread. A calmer Tullea gives Lorana the trinket from the lost rooms — having taken it when they first discovered them.