With the knowledge of Barbafir’s plans, the Twist of Fate sets out to beat him to the Eye of Hunger. At the time of rendezvous, the nomadic whirlpool is anticipated to be north of the Rukh’s Beak, a rocky spar-island known for a populace of avian monsters. The venturers do their best to dispel their tensions and prepare for a dangerous situation.
One night halfway along the route, Ramjat wakes Aya past midnight. The anxious bird warns his mistress that there is a stowaway on board, and that he heard the stranger enter the cargo hold. Aya’s first action is to go abovedecks and notify Attsu. The two check the upper hatch to the hold, and discover that someone has unsealed it. They lock the hatch again, and Attsu takes on stealth form to sneak down into the hold while Aya wakes Kismet.
Attsu creeps into the hold quietly enough to overhear the stranger whispering, and a fainter, somewhat metallic voice responding. The other voice sounds exasperated, complaining of pursuit by a “furred mongrel.” The stowaway asks when he should act. “Do not strike until they draw near the Eye,” comes the response. “Then slay their aeromancer. Disable the ship however you can. But it must be boarded.” The distant voice pauses, then complains of exhaustion and ends the conversation in time for Aya and Kismet to slip into the cargo hold. But they are not quite as stealthy as they would like, and the agent turns their way.
The stowaway’s first action is to leap from the crates toward the upper hatch. He seems surprised to find the hatch battened, much to Attsu’s amusement. The spy’s second action is to attempt to lunge past the women. Aya conjures a wind, but succeeds only in knocking over one of the cargo crates. But Attsu is quick to shift and lash out with his tail-whip, catching the stowaway around the ankle and halting his flight entirely.
The spy is human, with a somewhat intense gaze; Aya suspects him of Brotherhood of Vipers training. Attsu, with help from Kismet, begins threatening the would-be saboteur. Neither of them are particularly interested in playing the role of the benevolent captor who could be talked into mercy. Eventually Aya negotiates a best-case scenario in which they maroon the spy, as opposed to Attsu’s insistence that he could just start eating body parts.
At that the spy clutches at his arm. “You have to fake my death!” he cries. “We don’t have to do anything,” retorts Attsu. But the spy is insistent that the Ascending Flame will kill him horribly if they know he’s alive and did not complete his mission. The venturers promise to consider the possibility, and that loosens their captive’s tongue.
He tells them that his master, Zaerdahil, is headed for the Eye of Hunger — as is Unnat al-Shim, and Khalit the Slaver of Winds. “They will definitely come for your ship,” he says, “for Barbafir has a jewel, but you have two.”
The trio searches their captive before they bring him on-deck. They discover terrible burn scars on his arm and torso, the sort that may have been inflicted to burn away tattoos of a former loyalty. Aya is convinced that she was right, and that their captive Hasat is a deserter from the Brotherhood of Vipers. She suggests that if anyone could heal those burn scars, Wind-of-Embers might. The wind-caller then proposes a plan to magic away Hasat’s scars, wrap him in a sheet, “drown him” in the sea, then pull him forth and ritually rename him. If he has a wholly new name, then the Ascending Flame’s divinations should have little purchase. The others agree that it seems as good a plan as any, and Aya goes to Wind-of-Embers to discuss the possibility.
Over the remainder of the trip, Wind-of-Embers calls on her fire-god Hakasarre to scourge away Hasat’s scars. Regrettably, Notch picks up Attsu’s taste for taunting the captive. At one point while the elven priest is channeling healing fire-magic into the man’s scars, Notch leans over the process with an unsettling gnollish grin. “I like it charred on the outside, but fresh and red on the inside, please.”
The swiftest approach to the Eye takes the Twist of Fate closer to the Rukh’s Beak than would be ideal. Ship lookouts spy only one ship orbiting the whirlpool, presumably Barbafir’s Fang of the Shaitan. Tairasha warns the crew that they may be fighting one or more sorcerer-captains soon, and tells Notch to carry his yellow quiver.
But as the Twist of Fate draws closer to the maelstrom, a lookout calls out that something is approaching them from the Rukh’s Beak. Notch goes to watch the beast, taking a spyglass of his own. Before long, he says that whatever it is, it has four legs.
Notch shakes his head. “Larger.” He exhales through sharp teeth. “Sphinx.”
Aya suggests that a vulture-headed sphinx might be a servant of Tajat, and therefore not immediately hostile. The venturers agree to let it approach and see what it wants. The huge sphinx circles the ship once before it lands on the deck, surrounded by very nervous crewmen.
The sphinx’s first words are a warning. The ship, it tells them, is headed for great upheaval. It has seen visions, prompted by the unusual souls at play — and it stretches out its beak and taps against Attsu’s chest. “A great storm is about to break.”
“We intend to oppose it.”
The sphinx settles back on his haunches. “I may help,” it says, cocking its head and surveying the group with a yellow eye.
“What is your price?”
“Barbafir Bloodmouth carries a soul that is not his.” The sphinx focuses its gaze on Attsu again. “So do you.”
Attsu nods solemnly, and gestures to Kismet. Realization settles over her as she reaches into the magical bag and retrieves the small clay vessel taken from Nehedza’s cellar, the urn containing the soul of a colleague from Attsu’s long-ago mortal life. He takes it from her hand and holds it up to the sphinx. The great vulture’s beak reaches out and closes on the urn, and crushes it into shards. A faint radiance leaks out of the broken vessel, and the sphinx inhales it.
“I wanted to say goodbye,” says Attsu.
The sphinx looks back at him, tilts its head for a moment, then straightens. “I will assist,” it says, and then it spreads its wings and launches back into the air, the Twist of Fate rocking from the sudden shift.
As the sphinx circles away, shouts go up — two more ships are approaching the Eye of Hunger, from the west and the northeast. Aya takes the spyglass and identifies the closer ship from the west as the ship from Plum WIne Island, rigged for an aeromancer’s winds: the Typhoon Queen. The farther ship is not as immediately familiar, but she recognizes the decorations that mark it as the Leviathan Crown — the flagship of Unnat al-Shim, the Shackler of Tides.
The venturers decide to cut off the Typhoon Queen. With Aya’s windcalling and Tairasha at the helm, the Twist of Fate cuts skillfully around the edge of the whirlpool, threading the needle to arrive between the Fang of the Shaitan and the maelstrom’s rim. They draw close enough to see Barbafir Bloodmouth himself at the rail, a robed sorcerer beside him focusing on a complicated brass-and-crystal apparatus. The venturers gesture, and Barbafir’s three wives move to the edge of the ship and begin berating their very surprised husband. The gambit seems to work, as he orders his men to hold their fire. Aya leans over and tells Notch to be ready to shoot the jinn prison out of the wizard’s hands.
As the domestic dispute continues, both sides shouting to be heard over the waters’ roar, Attsu takes on his couting form and climbs up the mast, edging out onto a spar to be ready to leap to Barbafir’s ship if need be. Kismet is content to let the wives continue their scathing chastisements, but then Aya decides she has had enough. A powerful wind kicks around her, and she seems to manifest the authority of a djinn proper. Barbafirs’ wives part as she advances on the rail, and her voice carries like thunder. “There is no time for this! The Ascending Flame is coming, and you must stop what you are doing and prepare to resist them!”
The corsair lord falters for a moment, then sets his jaw. “The offering is already sent!” he shouts back. “He is coming!”
Aya gives Notch the signal, and the gnoll looses his arrow. The shaft passes through the workings of the sorcerer’s apparatus and lodges into his flesh, and the would be jinn-binder goes pale. As the Typhoon Queen draws near and Attsu tenses to spring, Notch’s apologetic chuckle is lost in the maelstrom’s roar — which grows even louder as the voice of a marid echoes within it.