From room 5, the group sought out Belcamp’s legion in room 7. Challenged by two guards and ordered to lay down their arms before seeking an audience with the bearded devil, Talon sought to bluff them into thinking he was disarming himself… but the sentries saw through his attempt and met his charge with their swords. The group pushed past them and the ensuing fray was brief, far easier than expected, particularly with the help of the priest-skeletons. Belcamp himself talked a good game, but fell to a pair of crushing axe-blows from Qiyet and a paltry magic missile from Hugo. He wore a simple gold chain around his shoulders which was easily fashioned into a handful of gold rings.
Kida became momentarily side-tracked when attempting to flank their foe, encountering the lamia lyrist Somnia upon a torture rack incorporating an enormous mithral sword… which turned out to be one of the six blades of Srasama herself!
Somnia thanked the party for freeing her, and offered an additional boon over what Giovanni had promised: she would use a Song of Sloth to lull the beasts in Room 8 to sleep, so that they wouldn’t need to be slain in a long, dragged-out fight. The disguised constables agreed, and received the final blessing in addition to snagging an enchanted tea kettle.
Giovanni kept to his word, awarding a painting to the group and thanking them for their efforts, though he still didn’t believe that making it to the final room would get them any closer to escaping the Vault. Kida and Templeton briefly considered sharing the gold rings with some of his followers, just to irk the Clergy, but eventually decided that unleashing a centuries-old sorcerer with an axe to grind against any and all Clericists, right in the middle of Crisillyir… might be bad for their need to stay beneath notice.
The hall to Room 9 was deathly quiet, and emblazoned on the stone entrance door were two handprints. The right-hand print glowed with blue light and was inscribed with the text “I am worthy, but I accept that I will be excommunicated from my faith in order to speak with the prisoner herein.” The left-hand print glowed red, and shone with the words, “I reject the will of the Clergy, and offer up a part of my soul to obtain the Secret.” Having secured the blessings, the constables wisely chose to lay their hands on the right-hand side, and entered.
Inside was the mad godhand Gene Javerto, who had been mentioned by some of the other prisoners; he’d arrived long ago and broke through many of the Clergy’s original defenses in order to speak with Ashima, and now he awaited her pleasure here, in the company of eight golden mirrors.
Cautiously, the five constables edged around him at the far reaches of the room, only for Kida’s image to be caught in one of these mirrors, spawning a golden clone of evil intent. Gene rose, complaining about an incessant hunger for souls, and the battle was joined!
While fragile, the doppelgangers proved almost entirely impervious to the attacks of the one they reflected, mimicking their combat style perfectly. Hugo hit upon the idea of simply knocking each mirror to the floor to make it impossible to cast new images through them, and the ever-replenishing flow of new mirror-constables was stemmed somewhat quickly.
Meanwhile, Talon found himself unexpectedly alone with Gene, having to fend off the hard-hitting godhand without backup, due to an invisible stalker making its presence known right in the middle of their formation during the fight. Likely it had been following them this entire time, which explained some of the odd whispers Templeton had heard early on.
Eventually, Gene was defeated, and Talon claimed his gloves as reward. Passing through one last archway into the keystone chamber, they saw an ominous being awaiting them. Talon nodded in greeting, asking, “Hey, how’s it going?”
She was a demoness covered in scales, her joints and fingers lined with horns and claws, bleeding slowly from several hooks dug into her flesh, which held her suspended over a well of holy water. “Ashima has been expecting these travelers,” she whispered.
Many questions were asked by the constables, and Ashima-Shimtu had many answers: some direct, others cryptic, and a few she honestly did not know.
Hugo: “If I continue to alter myself with machinery, do I risk losing my humanity?”
Ashima: “Human, dwarf, elf, metal-man… what does it matter? Only one’s heart matters, and Ashima sees the heart of a child in this one. A child who does not know the sins of his father.”
“What? What’s my father up to?”
“Ashima only knows that he himself does not know.”
The demoness’ voice was slow and pensive, and she rarely called anyone by name, or even as “you.” She spoke as if narrating her surroundings, and held a keen insight as to the inner workings of those before her. In her words, she could ‘see the hearts of others.’
Qiyet: “How did you end up here?”
Ashima: “Ashima was beginning to think these five didn’t care. Long ago, when Trigenes founded the Clergy, he fought against the Demonocracy and destroyed the high fiends that led it. But their essences were not free to return to the abyssal planes of their birth, and so they suffused into this world, poisoning it. Ashima was caught and nearly killed, but she bargained for her life: Keep her as prisoner, she said, and she promised to give them a way to find and trap these evil essences. Ashima kept her word, and now is kept in the hope that someday she will share her Secret… but she will never tell. Only once has she told, and never again. It is too dangerous for the world.”
Kida: “How did you know we were coming?”
Ashima: “Ashima can feel all those who tread on or under Odiem. Now, Vekeshi who abandoned her sister, step forward.”
Kida stepped forward. “What the hell do you want!?”
“Now, Ashima has much to tell this one. But first, she must tell Ashima what she knows of the Great Malice. Humor Ashima.”
“Well… the order teaches us that she joined the battle against the Clergy, but… she fell.”
“That is the what. Ashima wonders if this Vekeshi knows the why. Why did the eladrin goddess appear? The Clergy and Elfaivar clashed before. Why show herself in this second war?”
“She was called here. For Ashima’s Secret is a ritual that can give physical form to a belief. And what is a god but the embodiment of belief?”
“Ashima tells only the truth. Long ago, Ashima gave her ritual to a pair: man and woman, they were, human and eladrin. The man was a thinker who desired great change, and the woman was a mother who desired great justice. Both hated the Clergy with a passion that Ashima has seen rarely, even in this forsaken place. She believed that they would use it to undo the Clergy’s hold over this world forever, but instead it was used to destroy the faith’s greatest enemies.”
Templeton: “Isn’t it possible they simply failed in their attempt?”
“No, Gunman who will slay many Shadows. The goddess should have been powerful, too powerful for even the greatest warriors of the Clergy to oppose, and the gods of Crisillyir were not present that day, not as Srasama was. She should not have fallen, especially not… so quickly.” At this, the demoness glanced pointedly at Kida.
Ashima: “Ashima sees greatness in these travelers, and so will aid them. She believes that someday they may meet the two who know the Secret, and find the truth of what happened to cause the Great Malice, for both of the pair still exist somewhere in this world. Ashima wishes greatly to know, but accepts that she may never find out. By helping these five travelers, she believes she can undo some of the damage done, and protect against a great many future calamaties she sees coming soon… though she can never atone for what she has done.”
Qiyet: “Atone? Since when do demons care about what’s wrong and what’s right? And why should we trust any help you have to give?”
“Ashima has been the guest of priests for many centuries now, and has had ample time to reflect on the nature of morality. She is a demon, true—but demons are creatures of mercurial natures as much as they are beings of evil intent. If demons cannot change, what can? Ashima will help the travelers if they will accept it, and there will be no catch, for she is not a devil, and cares not for contracts and bargains. Ashima simply hopes that the truth of the Malice will be known, if not by her, then by someone.”
Kida: “What do you know of my sister? Does she live?”
Ashima: “She does. In the land of the eladrin.”
Hugo: “Is there any help you can give to… her?”
Ashima: [sees Hugo gesturing at empty air] … Ah, you have two hearts! Yes, there is hope for the curious professor. Ask the Mindmaker; though he cannot help her just yet.
Hugo: “Thank you… if I learn anything about the Malice, I will tell you.”
Talon: “What did Gene want with you?”
Ashima: "The godhand wanted what all Clergymen want. Ashima’s secret. But Ashima will never, never tell. Ashima thanks you for disposing of this annoyance. And to answer the first question of the warrior who holds nature dear, yet serve’s progress’ greatest city… Ashima is doing well. Considering.
“Ashima has told the travelers all they need to know. Now, they must speak the name of where they would travel to, and dive into the well. Ashima will see them all safely there. More, she will cloak each of them in her shadows, so their enemies will think they have died in the Vault, should they attempt to use magic to determine their fates.”