Cumberbund was a small village in the hills to the northwest of Corin's Crossing. Life within was idyllic for the villagers. Even the Second and Third Wars had left the village relatively untouched. One of the men claimed to have seen an orc back during the Second War, but no one had been able to substantiate that claim, so Mayor Theodore Chatham had declared the entire event a likely case of hysteria.
The village was not without its dangers, however. Wolves patrolled the forests, looking for those who ventured too far from the safety of the town, and there was always the threat of the undead or the Cult of the Damned. The cultists and the dead were new threats, but the wolves had been around since before the village had been founded.
Their last victim had been Theodore Chatham.
It had happened about a year before the Third War. On a night when the chill north wind blew, a young man had done the unthinkable and kidnapped a girl of sixteen from her father's home. The girl had managed to scream once before being dragged off, but her father and brothers had been too slow responding. She was gone when they reached her room.
The brothers were dispatched to the mayor's home while the father had begun looking for signs around his home that would lead to the direction the intruder had fled. When roused, Mayor Chatham had rung the town's watch bell, calling for all the men to assemble in the nearby chapel. It was decided that the men would split into teams of three and begin searching through the woods for evidence of what had happened, while also checking nearby landmarks for any sign that the kidnapper had fled there.
Torches were handed out to each of the men and groups formed quickly. Chatham, along with his son, Simon and Sheriff Masters headed to the girl's father's house in order to search for clues.
Inspecting the girl's window, Theodore discovered that the window's glass had not been broken, but instead the lock had somehow been disabled. "Sheriff," he said, "Come have a look at this."
"The metal seems to have corroded away," Sheriff Masters noted. "Perhaps acid?"
A chill ran down Theodore's spine. One of the town's residents, a young man named Richard, had been caught torturing Farmer Johnson's dog with acid. Theodore had given him a harsh sentence in hopes of reforming the boy, ten lashes and two days in the stocks. It seemed that the sentence had been too lenient. He turned to his son. "Simon, was Richard at the chapel earlier?"
Simon thought about it for a moment, stroking his short beard. "I do not think so, father."
Theodore thought quickly. Richard had favored an old mill within the woods as a place to loaf about. He would likely have taken the girl there. "Sheriff, we need to get to the old mill as quickly as possible. Are there any horses left?"
"I believe that the searchers have taken all of them already. We'll have to go on foot."
"So be it." He motioned at the girl's father. "Marcus, go into town and ring the watch bell once every minute. As soon as someone reaches you on horseback, tell him to head to the old mill. If we are quick enough, we may be able to save your girl."
The three ran into the forest making as much haste as possible towards the mill. Theodore was struck by how overgrown the woods had become. A man on horseback would likely have trouble making good time through them. It seemed that they might be the girl's only hope, so they pressed on.
Screams of terror filled the air as they reached the mill. It seems that they were right in their guess. Simon was the first through the mill's door. "Richard, stop it now!" he shouted, charging the man within.
Theodore was the second one inside. He saw his son and the other young man wrestling upon the ground and then located the girl, tied to a pillar. Her dressing gown was torn and blood ran down her exposed shoulder. "We're here, girl. Do not worry, he will not hurt you again."
"Simon, look out!" Sheriff Masters called out. Theodore turned to see that Richard had flung something at Simon. His son was fast enough to jump back and avoid taking any of the acid to his face, but some still struck his chest and shoulders. He roared in a combination of anger and pain and tore off his shirt. Then ignoring the pain, he charged forward and struck Richard in the face with a mighty blow, knocking the other man unconscious.
Theodore left the girl for a moment, concerned about his son's safety. "Simon, are you alright?"
"It should be fine," he said. "I did not get much on me, and there's a creek nearby. I'll go rinse it off and see the healer when we get back to town."
Theodore nodded. "Sheriff, tie up that lout and go help my son. I'll see to the girl."
He knelt again by the girl and cut her bindings. "That's a nasty cut you have right there," he said, indicating her shoulder. "What happened?"
"He was carrying me through the woods," the girl said through sobs. "He decided to go through a bramble patch instead of around it. I got caught on a big thorn and rather than pull me off of it, he just tore past it. He was talking about all the things he was going to do to me when we got here." She sobbed some more. "I was so afraid."
"He wasn't able to hurt you beyond that? We were in time?" She nodded. "Thank the Light," the mayor said. "We're going to make sure he pays for what he has done and when he has suffered for his crime, I assure you he will be exiled under pain of death. He will not be able to hurt you again."
When Simon and Sheriff Masters returned, Theodore handed his coat to his son, who looked at him quizzically. "We can't have you running around in this cold without a shirt. You'll catch a chill." Simon nodded and put on the coat while his father spoke to Masters. "I want you to stay with this piece of garbage while my son and I escort the young lady home. We'll return shortly with more men and then we can bring him back to the town hall's jail until we decide exactly what he shall get for his crimes."
The Sheriff nodded. "Do you have anything in mind for him, milord Mayor?"
"I suspect he shall be exiled, though he deserves to hang for what he almost did."
"That's the truth of it, sir. Guess we can't go hanging people for crimes they only almost committed, though."
Theodore and Simon left the old mill with the girl, torches held high, intent on bringing her home safely. She and her father had suffered enough this night, and both men wanted nothing more than to bring her home with no incident. They hoped that the fire of the torches would be enough to ensure their safety as they trekked through the dark woods.
Unfortunately, the firelight only seemed to attract the aggressive wolves of the area. After only a few minutes trek, the three found themselves in a small, rocky clearing, completely surrounded. "Simon," Theodore began, "i'm going to make an opening for you. I want you to promise me that you'll get the girl safely home."
"Father," Simon said. "I can't just leave you..."
"Promise me!" Theodore shouted.
"Okay, Father. I'll get her home."
"Good lad," Theodore said with approval as he lunged at the largest wolf with his torch. "Now go!"
The wolves responded to Theodore's lunge by focusing on what they perceived to be the largest threat. This left just enough of an opening for Simon to drag his charge through, and the two were off into the dark woods once again.
Simon knew these woods well, so they were able to move quickly, even in the dark with only a small torch to guide them. Even so, Simon could hear the sounds of the fight between his father and the wolves through the otherwise eerily silent woods. After several minutes of savage fighting, all sound stopped. Simon felt his heart fall into his stomach, but he knew that now was not the time to mourn. "We have to move faster," he said to the girl. "They'll be coming after us next."
As though in response, a single howl rang through the air, followed shortly by a half dozen others. The two began to move more quickly, but their haste led to errors, from branches scratching their faces to stumbling on loose rocks.
As was almost inevitable, the girl slipped and twisted her ankle. Simon caught her before she had fallen completely, but a quick examination by firelight revealed that the damage had already been done. "No helping it, then," Simon said, scooping the girl up into his arms.
He could hear the wolves growling not too far behind, so he began to run at full speed towards the sound of the watch bell ringing in the distance. He knew that it was risky to do so, but if he hoped to get the girl home safely, there was no other option.
His legs burned as the woods cleared, revealing the town only a few hundred yards away. He could see men on horseback within the town square, their torches lighting the way to safety, but there were wolves just behind him. It would only be a few moments before they would be snapping at his heels.
The sight of nearby safety filled him with a second wind. With all the strength that remained in him, Simon sprinted towards the men. He did not need to look back to know that the wolves were exiting the woods as well. He could hear the snapping of their jaws and their fierce growls as they closed in on him.
Thankfully, one of the men spotted him running in the moonlight and the horses were spurred on towards the fleeing young man and the girl he carried. The wolves realized that they would be no match for the armed men, so they turned and fled back into the dark woods.
Cromwell, a good friend of Simon's father, the first man to reach the young man. jumped from his horse and helped the now exhausted young man with the girl. He clapped Simon on the shoulder. "Glad to see that you've brought her home safely. Your father would be proud of you." He saw the look of grief that burned in Simon's eyes. "Wait, what's wrong? Where's your father?"
Simon could barely find the words to speak. "The wolves," he said, not confident he could say any more than that.
The older man's face became sullen. "What of Masters, and the lout who caused this mess?"
"Sheriff Masters is holding Richard at the old mill. I'm sure they'll be safe enough within."
Cromwell nodded. "I'll round up enough men to keep them safe from the wolves and escort them back here. You take the girl to her father and then go get some rest."
"I will. Thank you, Cromwell." He thought for a moment. "Father wanted to exile Richard. I think that's probably best. No more lives need to be lost this night."
"Perhaps you're right, master Simon, though I suspect that a good dozen lashes added on to that might not be a bad idea."
"Perhaps you're right," Simon nodded. He then smiled weakly at the girl he was still carrying, hoping to reassure her. "Come now, let's get you to your father so he can see about getting a healer to look at that ankle."
** * **
"Good afternoon, Mayor Chatham," a voice behind him said.
Simon turned and saw the familiar face of a very pregnant young woman. She was smiling from ear to ear. He returned the smile. "Looks like you're due any day now, Norah. Nathan finished that crib he was building yet?"
"It'll be done just as soon as we can get some pillows into it."
"Glad to hear it," Simon responded. A chill wind blew. Simon's acid scars ached from the cold, causing him to wince. "Come now, Norah, you should be getting home. Seems a storm's coming. Wouldn't do for you to catch cold this close to the baby's arrival." The young woman nodded and hurried from the town square.
Seeing Norah always reminded Simon of that night several years ago, when he had carried her through the woods, wolves snapping at his heels. He missed his father greatly on cool autumn days like this, but he knew that he needed to focus instead on getting ready for his impending marriage. His father had arranged Simon's betrothal to the daughter of an old friend before his death, and Simon would not dishonor his father's wishes by failing to prepare an elegant wedding. She would be arriving from Southshore in a week, and Simon had to be ready.
"Mayor!" a voice called out to him. Simon turned to see Sheriff Masters limping determinedly in his direction, the weather obviously aggravating an injury the man had suffered during the last war.
"What seems to be the trouble, Sheriff?"
Masters took off his hat. "Sorry to bother you Milord Mayor, but it seems some man was found on the road near town. He's been pretty bloodied and keeps babbling on about a witch."
"Bloodied? Think he was attacked by wolves? Or maybe Cultists?"
The older man shook his head. "I don't think so. He doesn't seem to be injured beyond a few scratches. The blood doesn't look to be his, at least not most of it."
That concerned Simon. "Think he might have attacked someone?"
"It's possible, but I really don't know. We can't get a straight answer out of him. He won't talk about anything but that witch."
"Alright then. Let's go," Simon said with a grim nod.
They reached the town hall a few minutes later. Inside Simon found his secretary and one of Sheriff Masters' deputies tending to a man caked with dried blood. While he didn't have any cuts, he did have what appeared to be frostbite on his neck. Simon thought it almost appeared to be in the shape of a small hand.
"Sarah," Simon said to his secretary. "I should have a spare set of clothes in the chest in my office. Please go get them. We need to get this man out of these torn clothes. When you get back, make some thistle tea for him. It should calm his nerves." The middle aged woman nodded and hurried off. He then approached the man, who looked to be no older than Simon. "Why don't you have a seat over here and you can tell us what happened."
Simon's calm and even tone had a visible effect on the man, who nodded and took a seat on a nearby bench. Simon pulled up a stool and sat across from him. After a few moments of focused breathing to calm down, he began his tale. "It all started a week ago. A red haired girl walked into our village late one morning. Said she was traveling through the area and needed a place to stay. Now, our town doesn't have a proper inn, but our tavern did have a spare room that would serve, so she ended up renting that room. She ended up staying a few days. Kept to herself, real quiet, that girl. One day she just up and left. She didn't say why, but she left in a hurry."
The man paused, the memories beginning to frighten him once more. Sarah returned and gave him a cup of hot tea. He thanked her and took a sip before continuing his story.
"She returned that night. It was right around midnight, the witching hour, when a scream pierced the night's silence. I had just returned from a night of drinking when I heard the scream, so I was still in my warm clothes. That's why I was the first to arrive." He took another sip of tea, his hands visibly shaking. "Our mayor was impaled upon the front of his home, a giant shard of what appeared to be ice sticking out of his chest. His wife, my sister, had witnessed it happening, as far as I could tell. She had died next." Tears had begun to well up in his eyes. "When I arrived, parts of her littered the town square. Her arm was on the ground next to our founder's statue and bits of her were strewn all around between the statue and the home." He stopped, seemingly too frightened to continue.
Simon gently patted the man on the shoulder. "It's okay, friend. You're in a safe place. She can't hurt you here, but we need you to tell us what happened."
The man nodded. "As I stood, shocked by what I was seeing, taking it all in, my eyes wandered to in front of the house. That's when I saw her. She was holding my sister's head by the hair and glaring directly at its eyes. I've never seen such rage." He took another drink of tea, this time gulping, hoping to escape from the memories. "She looked up at me, and within an instant she was upon me. Her hand was on my throat, so cold that it burned! I was so terrified that I pissed myself. I kept begging her to spare me, to let me go." He had begun sobbing, unable to speak. After a few moments of crying, he managed to regain his composure. "She laughed, if you can call it that. It was the most chilling thing I've ever heard. Then, with the most horrifying hatred in her eyes, she spoke to me.
"'I have decided to let you live,' she said. 'But I will not let you go. Not yet. All must pay for their crimes, this town included. You will bear witness to this truth, that all who aid the Cult of the Damned shall be punished!'"
Simon interrupted him. "Aid the Cult of the Damned? How could she think you were aiding them?"
The man's eyes were downcast. "Our mayor had been paying a tribute each month to the Cultists in the area, begging that we be left alone. She must have interpreted that as aid to them."
Simon understood that completely. The cultist presence in the area was small enough that they had left Cumberbund alone, but he could understand that some smaller towns might have been threatened into paying off the Cult. "Please, continue," he said.
The man nodded. "After that, she lifted me off the ground with a single hand and tossed me at the statue, like a man would hurl a rag doll. I slammed against the founder's chest and just hung there, as though pressed against it by some force I could not see as she pointed a single finger at me. Then, with her other hand, she made some small motions and the statue's arms closed around me, holding me in place. That's when the others began to arrive." He gulped the last of his tea before continuing. "It took her the better part of a night, but she slaughtered each and every person in town, a hideous laugh echoing the entire time. Each death was more horrific than the last and soon the entire city was covered in blood and gore.
"Dawn was breaking when she had finished. She waved her hand almost negligently at the statue and it released me. My fall knocked the wind out of me. As she walked over to me, I thought that I was about to die, but she simply picked me up by my shirt and stood me upon my feet. 'Run now,' she said. 'Run and let others know what you have seen, so that they too will know the price of evil. It is not to late for them to mend their ways and drive out the cult, but if you dally, I will reach them first and they will have to be cleansed.' So I ran for almost two days through the woods. I'd still be running if I hadn't stumbled into your town."
Simon thought on the matter for a moment. "I want to believe that you are simply a victim, but with how things look now, I have to take you into custody while we investigate your story. I hope that you can forgive us. Sheriff, have your men escort him to the cell in the town hall's basement. Sarah, go with them and see to it that he has that change of clothes as well as more tea and a hot meal."
As the sheriff's men and Simon's secretary followed their orders, Simon pulled the sheriff aside. "So what do you think, Milord Mayor?" the older man asked him.
"I don't believe he was lying. At least, I think that he believes fully what he told us. Find out what town he's from and send our six fastest riders there. If they find what he said, have three of them ride to the nearest village to that one and warn the inhabitants. The other three are to return here immediately and tell us about it. We'll need to begin increasing the strength of the watch, and perhaps send word to the nearest garrison. We might even request aid from those madmen at the Scarlet Crusade, though I fear we would only be trading one danger for another."
"As you wish, Milord Mayor. I will begin gathering riders immediately."
** * **
Several days later, Simon realized that things were more dire than they had feared. After confirming the man's story, Simon had sent riders to all of the nearby villages. Nearly a half dozen had already been depopulated in a most brutal fashion. He realized that they had no choice and sent riders to the Scarlet Crusade outpost at Tyr's Hand, requesting aid.
The response had come swiftly. The Crusade would be sending out fifteen stalwart champions to help defend Cumberbund and the surrounding villages against the threat, but that aid would not arrive for several days, as most of those men were out on a Scourge hunting mission. Simon would just have to hope that this witch wouldn't strike until after that.
Another issue that had cropped up had been refugees. As word had spread about the slaughtered villages, many of the smaller villages had emptied out and fled to the perceived safety of larger towns. As the largest settlement in the area not under Scourge control, Cumberbund had become the destination of a number of these refugees.
Homes had become filled to capacity as the citizens of Cumberbund had opened their doors to those in need of a safe place to stay. Even Simon's home now housed three families. Any further refugees would likely need to be housed in the town hall or the church. Any that arrived beyond that would have to be put into barns.
With this many refugees, Simon knew that provisions would become scarce quickly, so he sent out volunteers to the abandoned villages to gather food to keep everyone fed for the long haul. Other volunteers were tasked with gathering up stockpiles of firewood from the forest while still others were sent on hunting trips to gather up even more food for all the hungry mouths.
With that many scared refugees, it didn't take much to spark the first fevered panic. A splendid carriage had been spotted coming up the path to town and the wary people had gathered to see what it brought. As it pulled into the town square, the man driving it hopped down from the carriage. "Good folks of Cumberbund, as her father has taken ill with a stomach ailment and is unable to do the honors himself, I present to you Karin Rabonne of Southshore, betrothed of your young mayor Simon Chatham."
Simon's jaw dropped. Because of what had been happening, he had completely forgotten about the wedding! Nonetheless he found himself excited. It was to be his wedding day. At the least, it might give everyone something to take their minds off of what was going on.
He felt a hand upon his shoulder and turned to see a grin upon Cromwell's face. "So lad, are you ready for this? Any apprehension about your young lady in there?"
"Not at all. I met her once before when we were children. I thought she was lovely even then. She had the sweetest smile, a beautiful laugh and the most lovely red...oh no." Simon suddenly realized to his horror that things were likely about to go terribly awry.
Once the carriage door open, a villager let out a shriek and cries of "the red haired witch!" began resounding throughout the crowd. Simon tried to rush to the girl's aid, but all he got for his efforts was near death by trampling. If not for Cromwell pulling him out of the frenzied crowd, Simon likely would have been killed as well.
When the frenzy finally died down, Simon rushed to lifeless body of the girl, lying beside the dead carriage driver. He cradled her in his arms, his tears dripping down upon her cheeks. She had been even more beautiful than he expected, but that beauty was now marred by dozens of wounds from attackers armed with nothing more than a few small knives and their own bloodied hands.
Someone helped Simon to his feet, and took him to his room, though Simon was too numb to tell who it had been. They helped him out of his bloodied clothes and into his bed, where stricken with grief, he fell into a sleep haunted by images of the lifeless body of a young woman, killed because he had failed to save her.
He did not wake until it was nearly midnight, when a scream pierced the night. He sat up in his bed and ran to the window. Dozens of men and women lay lifeless upon the ground, often in more than one piece strewn across the town square. A shadowy figure darted around the square slaughtering innocents left and right. Simon began putting on his clothing so he could rush out and try to help them.
It turns out he didn't need to. A light rap upon his second floor window startled him. He looked out and saw a young woman. As silly as it seemed to Simon, she was seated sideways upon a broom, much as a lady would properly ride a horse. She reached out a hand to his window and it began to frost over as a chill took it. He heard the glass begin to crack until finally it shattered into a hundred small pieces.
She stepped through the shattered window and Simon could now clearly see that she was dressed as a witch just as one would see in a children's story book. She wore a sleeveless black dress that went down to her mid thighs, long black gloves, calf length boots with a bit of a heel to them and even a pointed hat on top of her striking red hair. If he wasn't terrified for his life, Simon might have been inclined to ask her where her black cat was.
"You must be Mayor Chatham," she said. "I'm excited to meet you."
He had no other option than to beg her for the lives of his people. "Please, spare my people. We have rebuked the Cult of the Damned at all turns and would never give them aid. I do not know why you hate them so, but we could be your ally against them." Despite the hatred he felt for the people of his town as well as the refugees, he knew he had to do his duty as Mayor and try to protect them.
She laughed. The sound of it sent a chill down Simon's spine. "My dear mayor," she said. "I think you misunderstand the reason for my visit to your quaint little town."
"Then you're not here to kill us all?"
"Of course I am, silly man. Each resident deserves death, though none so much as yourself, for what you have done. For the evil you unleashed upon the world."
Simon was genuinely confused. This woman must be a raving lunatic. "Please, I don't understand what you're talking about. We've never done anything to harm anyone. Please spare us."
"Oh, but you have," she said. "You had the opportunity to stop him, when it was clear what a monster he was. You could have ended it all, protected the world from his evil. But instead you simply put him out of sight and forgot all about him, while he moved on and took numerous other victims. Each of his crimes is upon your head, and all of you will pay for them together!"
Realization hit Simon directly in the gut. She was talking about Richard. Could she have been one of his victims? She could be no older than Norah had been when Richard had attacked her. The experience would have been horrifying. Simon did not have time to think about it as he suddenly found himself flying through the air.
He slammed into his bedroom wall with a dull crack, then pain shot through him as giant icicles impaled has arms and feet, crucifying him upon the wall. He roared in pain.
As his blurred vision cleared, he saw the woman just in front of him. In her hand she held what appeared to be a small slug of some kind. "You are about to experience the most exquisite pain," she said. "The same pain he experienced when I slew him. But do not worry, I will come in the morning and end your suffering." She placed the worm upon his shoulder and he felt it begin to burrow into his flesh. "This isn't about the cult," she reiterated. "This is vengeance. So I'll ferry you to Hell." She began to walk away. "Toodles."
And then Simon's world became one of nothing but pain.
** * **
The bites on the corpse of the mayor, still crucified upon his bedroom wall, confirmed his suspicions. This had been her work and not that of a copycat. That meant that the symbols she had left at the other sites had been hers as well. He walked across the room to the floating ice sculpture next to the window. It was in the shape of a snowflake resting upon a crescent moon.
A quick snap of his fingers saw the ice engulfed in flames, melting the evidence. This was his failure. He would not allow her exploits to become common knowledge to others in Dalaran. They would only know that a witch was reported to have been behind the attacks. They did not need to know her identity.
"Archmage Yadier!" a voice called up the stairs. It was one of his battle mages.
"What is it, Malister?"
"We've found something in the town hall. You have to come see!" Yadier teleported down into the town square and hurried into the town hall. Within, he found dozens of bodies piled in a corner. Written upon the wall in their blood was a chilling message. "Let all behold the price of evil" it said.
"What do you think it means?" one of the investigators asked him.
"I'm not sure," Yadier said to her. "This attack seems different than the others. First we found that girl dead in the town square, next to the overturned carriage, killed by small blades and bare hands. I suspect that the villagers killed her and her driver simply because they thought she was the rumored witch."
"The rest of the killing came later. Perhaps as retribution for that?"
"It's possible. And this message is strange. It would take a twisted mind to think that this was simply punishment for sins."
One of the battle mages burst into the town hall. "Archmage, our lookouts have spotted a large contingent of Scarlet Crusaders approaching on the road."
Yadier and the investigator exchanged glances. "Archmage, this can't be a coincidence," the woman said.
"Agreed. They're exactly the twisted sort of people who would see this kind of horrific act as a divine punishment for perceived sins. Now they return to the scene of the crime." He turned to the battlemage. "Gather everyone and take them down. Leave no survivors. They'll pay for their crime. When you're done, burn the town and all the corpses. We don't want the Cult getting their hands on them."
The two nodded grimly to him and hurried off. Yadier knew that this diversion would only buy him some time. He had to find the girl quickly before Dalaran realized who was behind this all. This was his responsibility, his failure. He wanted to save her.
But if he couldn't, she was still his responsibility and it would be his duty to take care of her himself.
Edited, Oct 30th 2010 2:51am by Poldaran
Edited, Oct 30th 2010 2:55am by Poldaran
Edited, Oct 31st 2010 10:50pm by Poldaran