The Broken Crown
Fandral's excuses for his transgression were weak, at first, but after several minutes of being berated by Malfurion, he finally snapped back, irritated, and explained himself in full. A foul substance, a metal of a dark nature, had been discovered growing not only on this northernmost continent, but on others as well. Even in Kalimdor. Against all advisory, what little there had been, Fandral had taken branches of Nordrassil, and planted them atop the foul mineral, in an effort to halt this corruption. At first, it seemed his tactic worked well, but the largest branch, now named Andrassil, had fallen to corruption, as it was on the largest deposit of the foul metal that Fandral and his ilk had discovered.
The resulting madness in the natural wildlife around the massive tree was evidence of this corruption, and after a brief council with the bear Ancient, it was decided. Andrassil needed to fall, and the druids would be the ones to fell it. It was, after all, their mistake to correct. Once the horde of elves had gathered round the corrupted tree, amidst the bramble Malfurion had created, still full of angry, lashing creatures driven mad with senseless rage, they drew on their collective knowledge of spellcasting, and for the first time since their empire fell, wove a spell that was grand, and primarily arcane in nature.
Their natural magic enhanced the damaging nature of what they wrought, and once the outer layer of the tree had been broken, the druids to the west, guided by Malfurion, struck the final blow, and guided the tree down towards them. Thankfully, there were none who were caught under Andrassil's massive trunk, though the entirety of Northrend shook with the force of the crash.
There was no celebration once the tree was felled, no cheers, no admiration at what they had, as a united Circle, accomplished. The faces of the entirely male horde were grim, their eyes, now primarily amber, filled with sorrow.
Malfurion addressed them only once, from the edge of a broken piece of Andrassil's bark, on the now felled trunk. "This debacle should be considered a lesson. Let us never forget the danger of corruption Nordrassil's scions may suffer from without proper blessings from the Aspects. This monument to arrogance and failure shall forever be known, from this day forth, as Vordrassil. Let all druids who look upon it remember what we have been forced to do this day." Despite his words, many would soon endeavor to forget Vordrassil altogether. Breaking such a promising World Tree had been disheartening, and the general unspoken agreement was to simply not mention it.
With that, he left the druids to ponder his words, and it was not long after before word spread. Shan'do Stormrage was returning to the Moonglade. Most of the druids followed suit, though some stayed to explore Northrend, and heal the Nymphs and Taunka who had gone mad. With the felling of the tree, whatever power had caused the madness had faded, hopefully for good.
Laronar was among those who departed first from the site of the Broken Crown, and was surprised, upon landing in Nighthaven, to learn that Malfurion wished to see him. He tried to remember if he'd done anything in particular of late that might have earned him the Archdruid's wrath, for most of their 'recent' conversations had been stern lectures about how often he spent time as a cat, and how dangerous 'experimenting' with Ashamane's form was, but nothing came to mind. He found the Archdruid in his barrow den, already preparing to return to the Dream, or so it seemed.
He gave a saddened smile and a nod as Laronar entered, as shirtless as ever, though this time clad with 'pauldrons' made of tough, durable leaves, a sign of how skilled he'd become at tending to nature itself. "Laronar Stormclaw. It has been quite some time since we last spoke. Come. Sit. We have much to speak of."
Laronar did as he was bid, and the Archdruid continued, "First, I wish to apologize for the tone of our last conversation…you were right, in many ways, as I learned from Ashamane herself, within the Dream. I have tried to convince her to yet share her form, but she remains stubborn in her prideful refusal. I was hoping you might sway her decision, if only for the future druids who decide to learn the Feral Arts."
Laronar raised a brow. "I was under the impression the Feral Arts were being phased out. Most druids these days focus on healing, and spell tossing."
Malfurion chuckled. "This is true, but again I must ask your forgiveness for my previous short-sightedness. I was focused too much on the Dream, and did not take into account the importance of having druids like yourself. Your patron informed me of exactly how effective you and your fellows were during the War of the Satyr. You took down many leaders that otherwise would have eluded our efforts to remove them from command. Even the Sentinels were impressed. I was...hasty, in my dismissal of your skills. I am sorry."
Laronar's gaze shifted away from the other druid at that. He had a feeling he knew to which Sentinel Malfurion was referring, but the last thing he wanted was thoughts of Shandris distracting him in the presence of one who was all but her father. "I…I am glad you have realized the importance the Feral Arts play…nevertheless, I know Ashamane. She is proud, and she is quite furious with you for suggesting her form is lesser than a stealthy Sentinel…"
Malfurion held up a hand. "I am aware. She explained as much, and I apologized, but she continued to refuse me the use of her form. Thus, I have a compromise that, I hope, she will be amenable to." He gestured to the nearby dirt, and a small root rose from it, hardening into a stick. He snapped it, and then began drawing in the dirt. Soon, there was a passable recreation of Azeroth between them, with Kalimdor, Northrend, and the as-yet unnamed and relatively unexplored eastern continent that the elves were content to not bother with, as that was where the Highborne had traveled to.
"Consider our world, sundered as it is," Malfurion said, as he created a facsimile of the Maelstrom that was rumored to yet swirl about where the Well of Eternity had once existed. "Over the past several thousand years, since the War of the Ancients, the area around what was once Suramar has drifted east, pulled by the powerful waves of the Maelstrom. This area, known to some as the Broken Isles, is actually home to a powerful coalition of Tauren. You recall Huln Highmountain, yes?"
Laronar nodded. "My mentor, Kota, was of the Skyhorn, one of the tribes who lived on Highmountain…but I was under the impression it had sunk, like so much else, beneath the waves."
Malfurion shook his head. "I have been told that this is not the case, by Cenarius himself. His own grove yet exists there, as do, so he says, some Kaldorei who have become powerful druids in their own right. They reside in a land called Val'sharah. They even have a World Tree." Laronar's eyes went wide, and the other druid smirked at the reaction. "What they need, is teachers, and I am told that there are many on the isles who have chosen to follow Ashamane, once they recovered her fangs, and heard her voice through them. I offer this, to appease her damaged pride: the druids of the isles may study the Feral Arts to their greatest depths, in a safe and relatively isolated environment. That way, should we have another Worgen disaster, it will not infect the whole of our people. I wish you to be the teacher in charge of training these new Feral Druids."
Laronar's mouth was agape now, though he managed to shut it once the Archdruid finished speaking. "You would trust me with such an important task? Me alone?"
Malfurion nodded. "Thaon Moonclaw shall join you, as he is the only other druid I know of yet able to take on Ashamane's form, and your patron chose him herself. I may send some others to you, should they need a lesson in control, but there is another reason I'm picking you. Since the day you showed us these techniques, you have displayed an immunity to losing yourself to the forms you take that other druids simply do not possess. I have seen you stay in your cat shape for days on end, and return to yourself as if you'd spent five minutes. We need more like you, if I'm honest."
At that, Laronar chuckled. "Is that so? Well, I would be willing to share the secret, if you're that curious." Malfurion gestured for him to continue, and he had that look he got when something genuinely piqued his interest. Laronar shrugged. "The secret is actually quite simple. The Tauren Shamans, as you know, revere the spirits of the elemental planes of fire, air, water, and earth, however, there is a fifth they pay homage to, which is by far the strongest, and most mysterious. Only their strongest Shaman dare to call upon it, and only in times of great need."
Malfurion raised a brow. "I take it your mentor taught you of this?"
Laronar nodded. "He said that this spirit, element, or force, whatever you want to call it, was what empowered the Wild Gods, seemingly at random, or so he believed. I discovered rather recently that with the proper rituals, druids might also contact this spirit. While I cannot think of how it would apply to our other branches, for Feral Druids, I believe communing with this spirit, or at least an aspect of it, should be something we have each student do. Contact alone is enough to understand the nature of the minds we share whilst shapeshifted. I myself was able to bond more wholly with Ashamane's after I tried this ritual. I imagine with time; the closeness with each spirit will cause changes that will eventually become more…prominent, in our elven forms. Not long after Ashamane had me master this in my secluded grove, my…feline characteristics were greatly enhanced, as was my Cat Form."
He bared his fang-like incisors for the Archdruid, who eyed them from where he sat with genuine curiosity. "I would not lightly contact this spirit, however…it is a vastly powerful force, and that contact alone can be…overwhelming. Without a patron's guidance, and intense focus, you risk losing yourself to the power of the form you're contacting. If successful though, the power one attains is…impressive, to say the least, though I've yet to test it on a true enemy."
Malfurion was in the process of stroking his beard, which now dangled down to the bottom of his neck. "An interesting discovery…I have often remarked at how similar the Tauren Shaman are to us, they call upon nature as we do…though not as easily. I shall endeavor to speak with this spirit…when I have a moment. Perhaps I can find a way to grant our fellow druids a more…permanent method of retaining their forms, one not subject to the whims of a Wild God."
Laronar arched a brow. "You'd go over Ashamane's head? I imagine she'd like that even less…"
Malfurion shook his head. "Not quite…though I would hope whatever sentience this force possesses might be able to convince her to let go her grudge…with the other druids at least, if not myself. For the good of the world."
Laronar shrugged. "I will speak to her as well…let me try that first, perhaps, before incurring more of her wrath." He glanced down at the map Malfurion had traced. "Did they really find a piece of Ashamane herself?"
Malfurion nodded. "She mentioned that if I wanted to start earning her trust again, I should send you and Thaon to the isles. Hopefully, the freedom to explore her form as you all wish, with limited restriction, will ease her anger at my poorly chosen words."
Laronar tilted his head, eyes still on the faint isles the other druid traced. "And where are we to stay while we train with this 'limited restriction'?"
Malfurion nodded. "I forget, you do not walk the Dream as often as you should. There is a place within Val'sharah, not far from Cenarius' Grove, where the Dream and Azeroth's border grows thin. It is a small grove, but one of great import, and one we must defend from the mortal side of Azeroth. Ysera and her dragons thoroughly defend the portal from within the Dream itself. We must guard it well from the outside."
Laronar raised a brow. "There's a physical portal to the Dream from this grove? I thought that was impossible."
"In most places, yes," Malfurion said, nodding, "But in this area, and apparently also in the areas where Fandral placed the other branches of Nordrassil, physical passage to the Dream is possible. I figured you would like this, as you have always been reluctant to part from your body. Now, you may walk the Dream, and retain the physical skills you value."
Laronar shrugged. "I like this body. I put a lot of effort into making it a weapon sharp enough for demon slaying. If what you say is true, I will endeavor to study in the Dream, and defend it, as I know you wish me to."
Malfurion nodded, then, and rose. Laronar did the same, sensing their meeting was over. "Thaon has already departed. I hope that you and he will be able to guide our estranged kin on the isles without coming into conflict."
Laronar smirked. "Is he still sore that I bested him in that hunting contest we had, what, millennia ago now? Do not worry, Shan'do. I'm sure the isles are big enough for two master predators. We will endeavor to create students adept at using Ashamane's form."
"I will send novices with an interest to you as well. Train them, and those you find upon the isles. When they are ready, send them through the Dreamway, to Feralas. From there, they should be able to find their way home. Good luck, Laronar." The Archdruid bowed, and Laronar bowed in return, then left the barrow. With physical travel now possible in the Dream, he had an idea of how he might bring Storm with him across an ocean.
The large saber cat had fathered many, many kittens in his long years spent in Nighthaven, Ashenvale, and even Feralas. Every few years, Shandris would call on him to make the rounds to the Sentinel's viable females, much to the irritation of his master, who could do little to stop the libido of the eager Stormsaber, or the stubborn General, who definitely outranked him. He had no doubt that what was left of Suramar would also need Nightsabers, and Storm's harem would likely go far in repopulating the area.
They traveled together as a small pack south to Feralas, and had little issue finding the Dream Bough. In a few short years it had grown well above the already towering trees of the jungle. The group made their way through the portal, after a brief conversation with the dragon who guarded it, and found themselves inside the Dream itself.
The Dreamway was lovely, easily one of the most aesthetically pleasing places Laronar had seen on his brief forays into the ephemeral realm. He felt Ashamane's presence then, and knew, by instinct, which portal led to the grove they were seeking. Storm wanted to linger, but Laronar kept his friend focused. It was not yet their time to reside in this realm, nor did he think either of them was strong enough to persist here after death, as some druids and other creatures had managed to do. That would require yet more training.
The grove they came upon after exiting the Dream was a sleepy little settlement, and seemed to barely differ from the Dream they'd just left. One look at the sky confirmed what Laronar suspected. They were indeed in another part of the world, under a sky and series of stars he hadn't seen for millennia. They weren't in the exact positions they'd been in during the War of the Ancients, but he supposed that was due to the slow-moving nature of this broken land. Even as he stood there, he could feel it shifting slowly, pulled toward the inescapable maw of the Maelstrom. It would be many millennia yet before it was all pulled under, though. Hopefully by then, they would have a way to keep their shattered land above the dark waves.
Laronar let the cats do as they pleased, and they wasted no time in sauntering off into the trees and brush south of the glade. Finding a home in a place this forested would be easy for them. Laronar looked around then, and eventually spotted a shrine in the centermost area of the few buildings nearby. Within were carved statues representing each branch of the druidic arts, and the feral carving appeared to still be in the process of being made.
Among the statues were several elves. Laronar recognized Thaon Moonclaw easily enough, in mid conversation with the others. They had been friendly rivals, as each had begun practicing with Ashamane's form in the years immediately following the War of the Ancients. Thaon was, to Laronar's knowledge, the only other Feral Druid that could claim mastery over their patron's shape, enough to rival his own. Laronar couldn't argue with that, for Ashamane herself had told him she favored him as well, after his heroics during the War of the Ancients, and an incident involving a newly turned Satyr.
He was shirtless, dressed much like Laronar, though he seemed to be wearing an outfit more suited for war than teaching. Leather straps criss-crossed his own impressively muscled torso, and his kilt had apparently been blessed by an Ancient, or several, for Laronar could sense the latent power in it from where he stood, some feet away.
Thaon had been the only other Feral Druid who had, in Laronar's opinion, mastered the Feral Arts as thoroughly as he had, if not more so. His skills had made him a bit arrogant however, and that was often how Laronar had managed to best him when he yet wished to challenge him in contests with their forms. Smirking as he recalled those challenges, most of which he'd claimed victory in, he made his way toward the druid.
He was speaking to several others, and as Laronar approached, the group's eyes shifted to him. He fidgeted, awkwardly, and then bowed. "Shan'do Stormrage has requested that I join you in these sundered lands, to teach and advance the Circle's understanding of the Feral Arts…in safety."
Another druid, one he took to be the leader, if not the primary tender of this grove, returned his bow. Laronar immediately liked him, but not because he was the first to show proper respect, it was more because he had a similar pair of shoulder pads to his own, though the leaves were gold. The others, save for the scowling Thaon, took a cue from the first druid, and bowed as well. "You are welcome here, Laronar Stormclaw. Perhaps now, Ashamane's followers will be able to begin. She has kept them from advancing their knowledge, even after Thaon arrived, to wait for you. Normally I would give introductions, but the Ancient's words were urgent. She wishes all of you to meet at the sight of her fall, before her Fangs."
Laronar nodded at the druid's words, and then at Thaon, who wordlessly turned, and headed eastward. As they left the grove proper, Laronar immediately felt it. The presence of his favored patron, stronger than it had ever been before.
"Control yourself…you're purring…" Thaon muttered, irritated, before taking the form of their patron, and dashing through the brush. Laronar was right behind him, and he heard the soft growl as Thaon's eyes fell on his form. It had always resembled Ashamane more than his, black fur where he had purple, a mane as black as their patron's, but now he had gained size as well, though he was still only half as large as Storm.
Thaon's, for his part, had a mane just as impressive, though his fur was light purple and white, and covered with stripes. He stuck out more than Laronar had, a fact the druid often suggested was the reason he was able to best his former student when it came to stealth. In the night, Laronar's form had a tendency to meld with the darkness. The two massive cats, for Thaon's own form was only slightly smaller than Laronar's, soon realized they were racing.
They bounded through woods and brush, startling several elves who appeared to live in this wild forest in small clusters, until they came to a river. A quick glance told Laronar all he needed, his destination was a raised mound of earth, surrounded on two sides by water, and one by cliff. There was only one path up, and it would require crossing the water to reach. Neither wasted a moment to pause, as they skillfully leapt across the few rocks that broke the river's current without touching the water, a stipulation of many of their past races.
They turned left up the slope that seemed to have been trod quite a bit, making a dirt path of sorts, and the black cat roared as their pace slowed on the hill's upward slant. Thaon roared as well, as he knew what his mentor was doing. Often Ashamane rewarded their roars with an increase to speed, but the brief interval between them had been enough for Laronar to pull ahead, slightly, enough to reach their destination first.
He leapt over a small crowd of druids, who were gathered before a pedestal of sorts, Thaon close behind him. Laronar resumed his natural shape as he landed, smirking at his former student who, as he too dropped the form, was grinning, despite his near loss. Laronar chuckled. "You're getting quite fast, despite your old age, Thaon."
The other druid snorted. "Not fast enough, apparently…" One of the novices from the small crowd came forward then, and coughed. Thaon sighed, and gestured at the impatient novice. "Laronar Stormclaw, meet our new students."
The novice who stepped forward bowed as he spoke. "It is an honor to meet Ashamane's Chosen. We have heard much of your skills, master. I am Delandros Shim- hey! Are you even listening?" The novice had tilted his eyes up to the supposed master druid, only to find that their shirtless, green haired mentor-to-be was focused on what lay upon the pedestal, and not him.
Laronar held up a hand. "A moment. She speaks…" The younger druid fell silent immediately. Ashamane was indeed speaking, and a quick glance at Thaon told him that he was hearing her words as well.
"Take up my Fangs."
Over and over it repeated in their minds, and at the same time, the two druids reached for them, each coming away with one. A low, rumbling, yet undeniably feminine chuckle echoed through the forested area, and the pair of fangs glowed a deep emerald green that surrounded the two druids, and coalesced behind them into the undeniable form of Ashamane. She was lying upon the fertile grass, and as she appeared, shimmering yellow flowers popped up around her.
Her voice reached all of them then. "At last…you are all here." The Ancient's knowing, amber eyes flared as her paws kneaded the ground before her in, what Laronar sensed, was anticipation. "Now, we may begin."