Prelude to “The Crowheart Legacy”
Do you want to know a secret?
Do you promise not to tell?
Do you want to know what’s lurking
In the dead White Witch’s well?
Come closer, now, my children
Lest my whispers carry long
The deepest, darkest secrets
Hidden here, within my song.
And once my song has ended,
‘Ere I free you from my spell,
You’ll be sure to keep my secrets
When I drag you down to Hell!
–Irrisen children’s rhyme
16 Erastus, 4707 A.R. –
After all these years, after all I’ve seen, you’d think I’d know better. The fact is I don’t know near as much as I thought. None of us did. Now, I’m paying for it.
At least it won’t end for me like it did for them. I’ve got some time. They won’t come in here. They might be waiting for me, but they can’t get in. As long as my decanter works, I’ll have plenty of water. Food’s going to be a problem, eventually.
There’s not much to do, now, so I’ll take my time and tell you what happened. If you’re reading this, you’ll need all the help you can get.
I realized early in my career that I might one day make a journal entry like this. I bought this book in Oregent just in case. Anya gave me the quill as an anniversary gift. She enchanted it so I’d never have to worry about carrying ink bottles. She always was the practical one.
I’m stalling because I don’t know how to start. I suppose I’ll start with our location. We’re a hundred feet below Hoarwood Forest in southeastern Irrisen. The catacombs above us are where my team expected to find the resting place of the White Witch, Talithia. A daughter of Queen Lisgeria, history tells us Talithia died in 3911, two years before Baba Yaga replaced Lisgeria with her next chosen daughter, Kirstienna.
According to the legends, Queen Lisgeria didn’t inter Talithia beneath the palace in Whitethrone. Instead, she buried her daughter in a sealed tomb somewhere far from Irrisen’s capital. She never told anyone how her daughter died or why she buried her so far away. They say many questioned why the queen hadn’t raised her daughter from death. Others whispered that she had tried, but failed. All rumors faded quickly, though, even if they survived as footnotes in the histories. Baba Yaga’s Riders began their rounds shortly after Talithia’s death. When the Three Riders appear, the people of Irrisen stop talking, one way or another.
I shouldn’t be wasting your time with history. You’ve just stumbled into this room. Hopefully, you’ve found my body and discovered that the creatures won’t cross the threshold or even come through the walls. I haven’t figured out why, but it probably has something to do with that altar.
I just wish I could make them stop those scratching noises. If they want to get at me, they might as well wait for Aroden to return. I wouldn’t let them take Anya; they won’t take me.
Finding the tomb’s entrance proved difficult. We’d spent weeks searching the archives at the Lodge in Absalom before visiting the library at Augustana, and still we didn’t know quite what to look for. Anyone who delves into Irrisen lore knows you don’t get much help from the locals, so we didn’t bother searching here in Irrisen. Folks in these frozen lands are either fanatically loyal to the queen or too scared to talk.
It took us several days in Hoarwood Forest to find the tomb. We barely avoided Hoarwood’s troll squads, even though we stayed clear of Anelisha and Grathis’s accursed palace. We fought a few snow goblins and their winter wolves. Our most dangerous foe was the cold. Without Anya’s magic, we might not have survived it.
As it turned out, our clue came from Irrisen, after all. It was hidden in a sick, old nursery rhyme. The entrance does look like a well. We had to figure out the right notes, but Sarrish managed to sing it correctly and a platform rose up to meet us.
We’d read that Talithia was buried with all of her house servants. We found plenty of crypts, just no bones. We should have recognized the danger then, but we thought we were prepared to face anything. We’d dealt with undead before, and we had Anya’s prayers to Sarenrae to aid us.
We passed through all those chambers without encountering even one skeleton. We were actually disappointed. We thought that no servants meant not finding Talithia’s remains either. We felt better once we reached the central crypt. We were certain the sarcophagus with the cat, dog, and tree motifs must have belonged to a White Witch.
Ever the scholar, Sarrish was the first to point out the lack of gates in the carvings. There had to be a good reason for excluding such an important Irrisen symbol.
Ever the fool, I opened the coffin. I’ve never made a worse decision. At the time, though, it seemed like genius. The empty sarcophagus, itself, proved to be the gateway leading to a deeper level—that is, once I found the mechanism that opened the door in the bottom of the box.
If you’re reading this, you already know why we didn’t find any bones on the level above. They line the walls down here. But there were too many bones. It’s obvious that more than just the servants’ remains went toward building these tunnels.
We’d only made it past the entry chamber when they came at us. They took Orsen first. He’d stopped to take a rock out of his boot. He leaned against the wall of bones, and I saw it ripple. It shivered. Claws, shadowy limbs made of bones from many creatures, reached out toward him.
Orsen was as tough as they come, but from the way he screamed when they grabbed him, their touch must have hurt like hellfire. It took them only the span of a few breaths to reduce him to bare bones. He screamed the whole time. It sounds crazy, but it sounded like his bones were still screaming when they merged with the wall.
They kept coming, moving in the walls. I couldn’t get a good look at one. They were all shadow and very fast. We kept moving. They kept up. They didn’t come at us in force until we got to the circular room beyond this chamber.
I’ve been a tracker my whole life. I knew we’d been herded. When I saw that door—those carvings of worms and eyes and gods only know what else—I wasn’t going through it without a fight.
We closed ranks and fought back to back. Nothing seemed to work against them. We couldn’t tell if we were fighting the same creatures or new ones that arrived to replace those that fell. When Sarrish died, I knew we couldn’t last. I took Anya by the arm and headed for the door.
We were almost through the door when they grabbed her. I tried to pull her free, but couldn’t. She could only scream. When she looked at me, her eyes said everything. I don’t know if she heard my last words to her, but I hope so. One dagger thrust ended her pain, and they left her alone. I realized they were backing off when the door slammed shut. I think it’s locked with magic.
So, here I am—and if you’re reading this, so are you. I’m not sure how long it’s been. I haven’t explored the room much. I know the altar’s not of Irrisen design. Sarrish might have known more. It’s probably been here since before Baba Yaga conquered the territory.
A few stories about Talithia suggested she had dabbled with powers that even Baba Yaga denied her children. There was no mention of what those powers might have been. I’m not sure this was meant to be Talithia’s resting place. Maybe the only things buried down here are the secrets of a disobedient granddaughter. And me, of course. And you.
I should be broken with grief and horror, but I’m not. That’s not my nature. Anya’s gone, but she’s safe from those things. Gods willing, I’ll be seeing her soon. Starvation’s a tough way to go, but I’ve got my dagger.
I’ll hold out awhile. Maybe I’ll think of a way out. If not, I’ll take the shortcut to the Bone Yard and get in line. It wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t for the incessant scraping.
If you find a way out, please take my quill with you. Anya would have liked that. If you don’t, feel free to make some notes of your own. I’ll leave a few pages for you.
I thought at first that the scraping sound was coming from the walls, but I just realized it’s coming from the altar. I think it’s getting louder. I’m going to check it out.
(featured in Wayfinder, Vol. 1)