The Price of Rage
Nighthaven - Moonglade
Laronar Stormclaw was perched upon one of the elevated peaks just outside of Nighthaven, in his owl form, watching the goings-on of the druids below. His sharp eyes noticed several worrying things. The Wardens of the glade, typically elves and Tauren devoted to defending nature, were now almost entirely elves, who were garbed in armor that any veteran of the Shifting Sands conflict would recognize. The plate armor of Fandral Staghelm's 'Cenarion Infantry'. Evidently, the Archdruid had brought his military with him back to Nighthaven.
The inn closest to him yet retained Tauren guards, and from what he saw, most of the Tauren populace of Nighthaven as well. It seemed that, at some point, they had all been moved to the establishment, though the elves within still seemed friendly with the bull men, which was something. Far too often though, he saw druids below, wearing the markings of the Cenarion Circle, sneering in the general direction of the inn, and the Tauren watching over it. Thal'darah had been correct. Nighthaven, the most populated town the elves had since the Sundering, was firmly under Fandral's influence.
He spent most of the day watching the Tauren go about their business, and noticed several other things. Vendors outside of their inn, refused them service. Druid trainers actively kept them away from both of Nighthaven's Moonwells, and whenever one of the trainees did leave the inn, he or she received silent, stony stares the entire time. Having seen Nighthaven as it was, in his mind, supposed to be, a place of peace, learning, and unity for both their peoples, seeing what Fandral had turned it into pricked a nerve. The druid shifted in place more than once as the simmering rage and frustration mixed within, and unsettled the owl spirit his mind had joined with. He barely noticed its discomfort, such was his rising irritation. It was as if Staghelm's deep seated racism refused to let them study in peace as nature, and Malfurion, had intended.
When he could finally watch no more, night had fallen, and every Tauren resident he'd seen had returned to the inn. The owl descended from his perch silently, and flew inside, landing on a rafter. Below, he spied several basic campfires, each with several Tauren looking up at him curiously. The innkeeper, My'lanna, looked up at him as well, hands on her hips. "Not in my inn. Down here, druid."
If owls could smirk, Laronar would've done so, but in a show of graceful acrobatics, he let his form fall backwards, and rotated in the air, as he suddenly had legs again. It was a jarring experience for his eyes, but his body, much like a cat's, tended to automatically right itself. He bowed, smirking now, at the innkeeper. "My'lanna. I haven't seen you since...that one Lunar Festival...must've been several centuries back by now. Forgive my memory, Dream-walking tends to make me...scattered."
She blinked, twice, and if he didn't know better, he would've sworn she turned a shade darker. "Laronar Stormclaw. Of course you're here, tonight of all nights. Your timing really is terrible."
He arched a brow, as he glanced around at the Tauren. He did not know them personally, but a few seemed to visibly brighten at his name. A good sign, hopefully. "Why? What happens tonight?"
A familiar, and welcome, voice joined them. "Tonight, Fandral Staghelm will attempt to, not for the first time, evict our Tauren friends here from their jobs and homes, to wander Kalimdor, and be run down by Centaur. I don't intend to let him...but honestly, until you showed up, I was convinced he'd get away with it." A smiling Naralex offered a hand as he strolled down a ramp with several elven acolytes in tow.
Laronar grasped it, smirk widening into a rare smile. "Naralex...I haven't seen you since these woods threatened to be overrun with Satyr. It seems my arrival is timely, if you're awake to deal with this...Thal'darah said it was bad, but this…"
Naralex sighed heavily. "It's...beyond bad. These elves from Silithus...they came up here with Fandral, and have been spreading anti-Tauren rhetoric since they arrived. The younger generation, male and female, were lured in by their war stories, and have since been...influenced. Now Staghelm's infantry is poaching promising females for its ranks as well. It has never been this bad, brother…"
Laronar shrugged, and placed a reassuring hand on Naralex's shoulder. "Don't worry...Fandral is many things, but he is still a druid, and a Kaldorei. We can talk this over, like civilized sentients."
"Can we…" A new voice joined them, and Laronar didn't have to turn to know it. There was something about it, about the elf it belonged to, that made his hackles rise. But he pointedly ignored his own prejudices, and tried to stay objective. He turned as Fandral Staghelm, flanked by no less than twenty of a mixed assortment of druids and 'infantry', kept speaking. "You're woefully out of the loop on this, Stormclaw. These issues have festered for years in my town. No longer. It ends tonight."
"Your town?" Laronar said, failing to suppress a chuckle, "What issues have these good Tauren caused, Archdruid Staghelm? I admit I don't personally know them, but our friend Naralex does, and I knew their grandsires. I vouched for them in the past, and I will gladly do so again now. These are allies of nature. You knew that, once. Nighthaven is to be shared. Or has Malfurion's decree been overturned by him, or Cenarius? Remulos, perhaps? Has anyone, besides you and your stout warriors from the south, actually changed their mind on this issue?"
Fandral's patience, already thin when Laronar had last witnessed it, seemed to have all but evaporated in the years since losing his son. He was different, that much was obvious, but Laronar still could not figure out why the druid rubbed him so wrongly. It went beyond his haughtiness and racism at this point. He was still keeping an open mind, and paying respect where, admittedly, it was due. Something dark was still pricking his sixth sense though. He decided to meditate on it later.
After a long moment, Staghelm spoke. "They would change their opinions, if they knew the trouble these...lesser beings...have been causing in our most sacred grove."
One of the younger bulls was on his feet, and snorting. His head was raised though, a good sign, since lowering it usually preceded a charge. "This...snake tongued schemer has stolen our homes and our businesses! In good faith we traded with him, and now, he attempts to banish us to tribes we do not remember, against an enemy we have never faced."
Laronar glanced between Fandral, the bull, and Naralex, who nodded his way. He turned back to Fandral. "Let me guess. You signed contracts with their businesses, using elven subtext to rob them blind, since they do not read our script very well."
The standing Tauren blinked at him. "How did you…?"
Naralex spoke up then, fixing Fandral with a glare. "He's tried this before...it helped get him sentenced to the far corners of the world, but his racism persists, it seems, despite the punishments he has received for it…"
Fandral glared back at them, and the more Laronar looked at him, really looked at him, the more insistent the wrongness he was feeling was becoming. He'd known Fandral Staghelm for the better part of ten millennia, and while they had not always been friends, it was not until that moment that Laronar considered him an enemy, one that seemed determined to oppose what the Circle stood for. "I have been punished in ways you wandering, loveless ferals can only imagine in your darkest nightmares. No more. The Moonglade shall no longer be fouled by the presence of lesser druids."
He focused on Laronar and Naralex then, ignoring the people he was displacing entirely with the callousness of one who considered their worth next to nothing. "Brothers, the Shifting Sands left us devastated...entire barrow dens, vacant. Archdruids of thousands of years, gone, lost forever to the sands of that felish region. Join me in Nighthaven. We must rebuild...and quickly. We must be stronger than we ever have before. The bugs are not done. You both know this as I do. You were there."
Naralex spoke first after considering Staghelm's words for about a second. "If racism and treachery are what you are building this...new Circle...around, you may leave me out of it." He glanced at Laronar then. "I will guide these Tauren south...and lend my aid until they find a tribe willing to accept them."
Laronar shook his head. "This isn't right. We cannot just...let this happen. Naralex, if we do, we backslide on the progress of thousands of years, and no small amount of Tauren lives lived in friendship within this very glade."
"And what are you going to do, Stormclaw?" Fandral's mocking voice cut through their conversation once more. The smirking, beardless Archdruid sneered at his contemporary. "Fight me? Maul me in the street, until I change my mind on these beasts you love so much?"
A low growl rumbled through the inn, and Laronar soon found a pair of hands on his shoulders. One from Naralex, and My'lanna. "He's not worth it…" One of them muttered, but the feral druid was beyond their hearing now, and Fandral knew it, as the druid stepped into the shadows just before the inn's entrance, towards him, amber eyes ablaze in the shadow. Fandral stepped forward as well, open palms flaring with sigils of entirely too much arcane.
As Laronar stepped into the moonlight, Staghelm got a proper look at the fury he'd roused. Laronar's arms now resembled something between elf and panther, not entirely unlike how the Worgen had manifested their own changes. Each 'paw' flared with natural wrath that even the greenest acolyte was familiar with. "Is that what it's going to take, Fandral? A duel? Once I knock some sense into your skull, you will never again try to force these Tauren from their home here. What say you?"
Fandral answered him as he fired a series of arcane missiles. "So be it. To the faint." Laronar slashed through the druid's arcane barrage, as he closed in on his opponent. By instinct, he almost lifted his head to go for Fandral's neck, only to then realize he was still an elf. He made a final, if somewhat half-hearted swipe at Fandral. Not enough to kill, no, but he was in the mood to give this druid in particular a strong reminder of why nobody wishing to live messed with Feral Druids.
Fandral came away with bloody streaks down his forearms, which had risen to protect his face. Something came over him then, a shift, a change in the tone of the duel that got even Ashamane's attention, for Laronar felt her eyes upon him quite suddenly. "You're looking more cat than elf, Stormclaw. Losing to the rage, are we? Finally crossing that line?" The druid sneered. "I always knew you would follow a path similar to Ralaar's."
Laronar stared the other elf down, and when he spoke his voice came out in far too much of a growl, "If I was having the same problems as Ralaar, Staghelm, I'd be down already…" The energy in his palms flared then, as he finished the spell. Silvery thorns protruded from his still mostly elven abdomen, as well as the rest of his body.
The amber eyes of his opponent narrowed, and several things happened at once. Ashamane urged his instinct to shift into her form, for that could be far more easily healed by her. If his elven form was seriously damaged, it would take his own knowledge, or another elf's, to mend.
At that same instant, Fandral Staghelm took off his kid gloves, as fist of rock and earth upended one of Nighthaven's own stone paths, and took the Feral druid in the chin with all the force of a Shoryuken. Laronar felt his mind go blank as his body responded to his patron's call, and in that moment, he felt it. The rage and fury of nature he had willingly embraced, but always had the mental fortitude to control, and limit, as needed. It surged, as the one person he genuinely disliked became the center of his reddening vision. Pain clouded his mind, and in that pain, something else rose to the fore. The beast within, still a part of him, but struggling now to, for some reason, tear free and maul the elf before him.
It wasn't with blind anger though. The wild part of him was telling him to end this elf, for reasons he could not rightly comprehend in that moment of blind pain. It was pure instinct, and his body reacted to it before he could think.
His fangs became longer, the fur traced up his still elven arms, appearing over the rest of his body. That strike had been intended to kill him, of that, Laronar was sure. He knew when his opponents wanted his life, he fought often in the wilds, and in war. Whatever he had become, it was, to his inner monologue, a monstrosity of the form he so loved and honed.
He didn't have long to lament his new state, for his body was moving again on its own, focused upon tearing apart the other druid. He leapt, claws extended from his five fingers as he prepared to shred Staghelm to pieces. He likely would have, for he was quick, but another's timely intervention saved him from becoming a murderer, and upsetting plans none of the gathered druids were yet aware of.
Entangling vines bound his snarling form, and Laronar fought it for control, as he saw who was casting said vines. Remulos was a direct descendant of Cenarius, and a friend. The struggling elf-panther ceased, entrapped in vines as Ralaar had been, and though he tried to free himself, the roots remained deaf to his commands. He also noticed his Barkskin fade, and knew he had messed up significantly this time. Reclaiming his actual shape would be much harder.
"I am not mad at you Laronar...merely disappointed. For over nine thousand years you have been an example to those who follow your arts, a master of yourself, and now...you have perverted your patron's form with your rage. You have let the beast take control, and so a beast you will become...and a beast you shall stay." The Keeper's word struck home, and he lowered the roots entangling him, as he found himself instinctively standing, if one could call it that, on all four gangly limbs.
"Is...therrre no way...to stop this?" He found forming words suddenly much harder than normal, as his mouth was only half appropriately shaped to even make them.
Remulos shook his head. "You were warned when you and the other druids first sought to expand your knowledge of taking the shapes of nature's defenders. Giving in to the rage, turns you into what you favor most. I have never seen a druid, of any race, recover from this fate, and many who have given in to their wild side simply become part of the natural hierarchy...joining it even in death. You can certainly try to avoid this fate...but nothing I or Ashamane can do now will stop it."
Laronar glanced up at Staghelm, who was smirking entirely too smugly. He growled, and forced out words once more. "And this...banishment...are you going to allow it? Will you let this scheming rrrracist displace these innocent Taurrren, and fellow protectorrrs of the wild?"
Remulos raised a hand halfway through his increasingly angry words. "I do not take part in the politics of your races. None of my kin do. We keep to our own as you keep to yours. It is...better for all if we do not influence your civilization, beyond teaching you how to coexist with nature, and better defend it. All I ask as Keeper of this glade is that the peace not be disturbed."
Laronar's eyes shifted from Naralex and the Tauren within the inn, to Fandral's group. All had similar expressions of disgust or fear, and finally, he focused them back on Remulos as he forced the words to come forth. His Rs were lengthy, and he had pauses in his snarling speech, but he managed. "All evil rrrequires to flourish...is the inaction of those who arrre good. You will regrrret this...Keeperrr...before yourrr days are ended...this Cirrrcle is no longer the brrrotherhood I helped forrrm...we have let this obsession with Drrreaming cloud our eyes...to the darrrkness right under our noses...I will not be parrrt of it...not if this is what...we are allowing now."
He strode towards Remulos then, and a pair of Dryads appeared from the bushes beside him, spears raised. The Keeper raised his hand, though, for the druid had not attempted to attack him. Even in this stilted state, he had remarkable control. It would not save him though. Not now. Laronar spoke again, standing to his full height of roughly ten feet, in his new form. Being bipedal was not something his half-shifted spine liked, but as with the difficulty of speech, he ignored it. "The Moonglade is yourrrs to keep...but it will not be, if you allow Staghelm to rrrule it unchallenged…with his own perrrsonal army." He turned then, towards the inn, and let out something between a snarl and a sigh. "If the demons rrreturn...summon me. Otherrrwise, I will have no part of this...rrrracism towards those...who have everrr been allies."
He loped off then, through the inn, ignoring the looks and words of the elves and Tauren. He tried running, and was awkward at it. His cat form's gait had always been smooth, ideal for a hunter, but this form, while it certainly had strength, was not evenly balanced, and his pace was slowed by his awkward limbs of differing lengths.
Laronar made his way through Ashenvale, as stealthy as ever, and back into Stonetalon. He did not reach for Ashamane or his magic, not yet, as he only had one idea as to what he could do to save himself from becoming little more than a very strong animal for all of time. He enjoyed living in the wilds, but he also enjoyed thumbs, women, and the occasional foray into his people's civilization. To enjoy those things once more, he would need to fix himself.
He found mountain climbing surprisingly easy in his altered form, with long limbs and claws, he made short work of Stonetalon's tallest peaks, behind which was a grove he was long familiar with. As he crested the top of one such peak, he looked down, and spied a glade teeming with life. There were more trees than when he'd last visited, and from his lofty perch, he even spied quite a few of Cenarius' children. No doubt keeping the land, as they had promised they would.
He descended rapidly, which caught their attention, and the forms of the dryads and Keepers vanished into the foliage as the strange creature approached the woods. He paused at the edge, and waited. A Keeper of the Grove formed before him, appearing much as Cenarius had, in his experience. A whirlwind of leaves and detritus coalesced into a being whose upper torso was as aesthetically pleasing as any Kaldorei. "Laronar Stormclaw...it has been some time. I heard from Remulos that you might head this way...and why...you are not welcome here, if more violence is what you intend."
Laronar was surprised at the strength of his rage, the sudden urge to claw the Keeper to pieces for barring him from what he considered to be his oldest home, but he resisted all the same. The result, was a soft snarl. "This...is my home...Keeperrr. Do not forrrget that...you are herrre because I gave this land my energy...and made it flourrrish. You...arrre tending my legacy. I will do as I please...in my own bloody forrrest…"
The Keeper's neutral handsome expression shifted into a frown, but he did not bar the elf-cat's way as he loped into the woods, and towards the old shack that had been his shelter while learning restoration magic. He found it in a state of disrepair, home to a number of squirrels, who had taken advantage of the fallen roof with the first of the winter chills in the air. Finding nothing of use, and noting that, at some point in the thousands of years since he was last here, someone had rifled through his stuff, he sighed, and left. It was a home no longer, not for elves anyway, and he did not currently have the magic to make it suitable again.
As he turned and left, fully ready to dash into the woods, sate his hunger, and leave, he sensed a shift in the trees around him, and whirled. He hated not having his sixth sense, the one that had always allowed him to detect, to an extent, other magical beings. Had he possessed it still, he might have noticed the Tree of Eternity that had sprung up behind his house.
The massive Ancient turned towards him, and spoke. "Your...energy...I know it. I have...grown upon it...you gave much...to this land…" The massive tree leaned over his dilapidated house. "...and now...you find yourself...stuck. Cut off...this...I can help with…" Before Laronar had a moment to even blink, orange swirls lit the gnarled fingers of the ancient tree, and then flowed into his shifted form.
His perspective changed, the world became greener, and as he again looked at his house, he found it was gone. In its place, lay a massive, ash-colored panther, head on her paws. She let out a long sigh, as the elf she had favored for over nine millennia bowed before her in a form twisted by rage and poor timing. She felt slightly responsible, as she had pushed him to change in the first place.
"I was wondering when you would make it here...or if you still even could. You have properly messed up this time, Laronar. It will take some time to fix. Even for me." The massive, translucent panther stood, and walked over to the awkwardly crouching elf-cat.
He looked up at her as she came close. "Then there is a way to fix this? I do not fancy being a cat all the time." A smirk crossed the twisted visage. "Just most of it."
The panther Ancient snorted at his words, an expression he recognized as her version of a chuckle. "I can fix your form, but it will cost you...you must become my Avatar on the waking plane. About six centuries you will have to sleep, but, when you awaken, you will find your forms, both mine and your original, much stronger."
Laronar glanced at his body then, and frowned slightly. "Is there no way to master this form? It has potential...for war, if not stealth. Much like the Worgen."
"This shape is a twisted perversion of the gift I first gave you long ago. It is best if you forget it, and focus on honing that which you have already begun to master." The Ancient spirit loomed over his own semi-corporeal form. "What say you, druid?"
Laronar glanced at the ground for a moment, and then looked back up at his patron, she who had always guided him well, answered his questions, and acted as a truer friend than most of his own kind ever had. "Very well. A few hundred years asleep is worth having my body back...and Azeroth will benefit from having you walk it again." He stood closer to her, and met her burning gaze. "I offer my body as your vessel, willingly and without coercion."
"And I accept, that which is freely given…" The panther's amber orbs flared, and that, was the last thing that Laronar remembered.
The Hinterlands - Eastern Kingdoms, Six Hundred Years Later…
From his perspective, the next thing Laronar was aware of, was an unfamiliar forest, in an unfamiliar land. He looked up, and found the moons in the sky, but the stars around them were different, as if he was not on Kalimdor anymore. He looked at his body then, and found himself once more in the shape of an elf, though the cat-like influences had only increased. His incisors had lengthened into sizable fangs, for an elf, and his muscles seemed harder, and there were more of them than there had been the last time he'd seen his limbs. He felt stronger all over, and it was not only physical.
His senses were far more attuned than they had been before, and while Kaldorei typically stood at the top of the sight and hearing spectrum, his own range of perceptiveness now included smells as well, for he could catch many, with a single inhalation. He was used to his animal form's perception of them, but eventually, he managed to sort that which he knew, from that which was unfamiliar. Then, he noticed his own scent had changed, and seemed to have some layered potency to it that his own nostrils appeared immune to. Amongst his musk, was the smell of decay, and immediately, he realized much of his reagents must have been left in wherever such things went when a druid shifted their form. For hundreds of years.
He thankfully found all his pouches where he'd left them, though the food within, recently procured from his perspective, had turned to rotten remnants of berry goo stuck to the jerky he'd kept alongside the fruit. He sighed, emptied the food, and then realized he was rather hungry. He reached out for Ashamane, but she was far, far away and seemed preoccupied. She did acknowledge him though, as energy surged within his form, familiar and entirely welcome. He shifted his shape, and again took the form of a cat.
He looked as much like his patron as he always had, but now, he sized himself at roughly the same size as Storm, perhaps slightly smaller but just as well muscled, if his friend had continued to grow over the centuries he did not remember. He sniffed the air of the unfamiliar woods, and sighed. Nothing smelled familiar, and there was a predatory scent throughout the region's air. He ventured a guess that whatever hunted in this strange, albeit flourishing land, was an apex predator.
He did not run into whatever ruled over these woods though, as he hunted, and brought down a stag. He let his form consume the meal, an offering of sorts to his patron, and something his stomach could digest. Once he was sated with food and drink from a small river, Laronar shifted into his owl form, just to make sure he could, but once he was above the trees his delight at being able to fly again was replaced by disbelief, as one of the mountains on the horizon seemed to be staring back at him.
He only had a brief moment to admire the very obviously carved mountainside, and wonder who made it, before he heard a pair of flapping wings, and a screech that tore the air, not entirely unlike his owl form's. To his owl ears though, it sounded more eagle than owl. The source of the shriek came barreling past, as he let himself fall in the air, suddenly, dodging a pair of large talons that grasped the space he'd occupied a moment earlier.
He got his first good look at the creature as it banked around towards him, but even then, his confusion only rose. It seemed half lion, half eagle, and yet he had never heard of such a beast. If they existed in Kalimdor, he was sure the Tauren would've ridden them. Two of their more popular totems in the same animal would've made for good mounts. The creature was large as well, looking more than capable of lifting a bull man, if it had to.
As the predatory hybrid creature, which seemed natural to his senses, and not a magical aberration, came towards him again he turned his wings towards a lake, near the middle of the region. A few tents were pitched on the southern shore of it, but they looked too small for trolls, Tauren, or Kaldorei. That, was when things started to click. Small dwellings and masterful stonework? He knew of only one race that was short and skilled with stone shaping, but he had never actually met a dwarf. They had been considered extinct, after the Sundering. Knowing dwarves, or rather, what his people had known of them almost ten thousand years prior, they'd likely gone underground, hidden from the few elven eyes that watched this continent.
Laronar flew close to the lake, snagged a fish near the surface, and then lifted up again, towards the mountains immediately behind the lake, that helped form the natural bowl-shape this forest inhabited. The creature had followed him, and roused the inhabitants of the tents with another shriek, but as Laronar arced upwards again, gaining height on the creature, he let the fish fall, and the bird-lion paused, eyes moving from the owl as the easier meal took priority. Laronar smirked to himself, and then landed on a tree on the mountainside, blending into the shadows as only his race could.
He watched the creature then, as it tore the relatively large fish apart in the air, and then remembered it had been hunting an intruder to its airspace. It looked around for only a brief moment, before a rope from below with a noose on the end landed around the creature's neck, and dragged it towards the earth. The animal squawked in protest, but then, another of its kind, one wearing metalworked armor plates, joined it in the air. The struggles lessened, and the pair landed. On the ground, the figures from the tents, who had revealed themselves to be dwarf-shaped, swarmed the creature, feeding it, and then breaking into some kind of celebration when it accepted their food, and didn't fly off.
Somewhat curious, Laronar watched from above. The sound of their words was cut off by the rush of a waterfall, leading into the lake to his right, but from the movement of their mouths, they were speaking the dwarven tongue, and hearing their words wouldn't have mattered. About an hour later, another creature appeared, drinking from the lake, and again the dwarves lassoed and dragged it down with the aid of the one they'd armored and brought with them. Again it found a partner, and again, the celebratory ale was brought out. Then, the dwarves with a new pair of mounts to ride had them saddled with what he recognized as training saddles, not all that different to those used on Nightsabers, and they were in the air moments later.
Laronar chuffed quietly to himself. Flying dwarves. Just when he'd been convinced he'd seen everything. He watched them for a time, curiosity genuinely piqued, as to how exactly they armored such a creature. One of the main reasons such suits were rare for Nightsabers was due to the cat's size steadily increasing as they aged through centuries. That, and the fluid movement of their gait needing to remain unhampered.
As they mounted their new catches and headed towards the peak that, Laronar now realized, resembled these hybrid bird-cat creatures, he followed, silently, and watched as they brought them to a strange dwarf. His clothing was mostly feathers, but as Laronar perched closer, he saw there was metal beneath them. He wielded a pair of hammers, and after he measured the new creatures, he turned to his forge, and hammered out several plates for their heads, chests, and talons with impressive speed.
Once the armored creatures left with their partners, the hammering dwarf retired to the back of his forge, lit up a pipe full of a brown herb Laronar didn't recognize, and sat in his bedside chair, scowling at the entrance as he puffed. Laronar let the sun fall below the relatively high horizon line of this land before he landed at the entrance of the smith's cave-forge, and fixed the dwarf with a stare from the very much unnatural amber eyes.
The dwarf traced a J-like symbol in the air, one Laronar recognized, and the accompanying pinch of salt and soot followed soon after. By the time it had landed on his form, he had shifted back to his elven shape, and bowed fist to palm before the dwarf.
His hair was a rich mahogany brown, with only a few grays mixed into it, and his impressively braided beard. It was clear that he was a shaman, for he radiated a connection to the land the druid recognized, and he appeared to hold some station of importance among his kin. He spoke first, with an accent that even the language comprehension spell couldn't entirely erase. "I had a feelin' we had elfie eyes upon us this night. Speak then. Why've ye come? Ye don' look like any elfie out o' Quel'thalas by my reckonin'."
Laronar blinked, as the spell translated a pair of elven words amidst the dwarvish, and he wondered if the Highborne of old had continued to survive to the present era. After a few thousand years without sighting them, most Kaldorei assumed their ancient cousins were long gone. "No...I am not from...Quel'thalas...I am Kadorei, of Kalimdor. To the west. I come in peace." He stepped closer to the dwarf then, and the short, stout creature eyed him with suspicion, until he saw what the elf carried.
The cat-headed pipe made of well used wood was packed with a herb that, unlike the dwarf's was green in color, and had bits of orange mixed within as well. A smirk came across the rough features, and he put down his own pipe. "Now tha's more like it. None o' that hooka' nonsense like the elfies up north." Laronar lit the bowl for him, and the dwarf's smirk only widened as the potent elven stash worked its magic rather quickly on the creature who was not used to the effects. "Kalimdor ye' say...our historians in Ironforge say tha' was the name o' all the world's lands in a time before time. We never 'ad any proof it still existed. Dwarves don' do well with oceans, but p'raps such a journey is possible fer a flier, eh? If an owl can do et, I'd bet a gryphon could too."
Laronar nodded, taking his own toke on the pipe as it was passed back to him. The two sat quietly in the cave, and Laronar assumed that, now that he'd established friendly contact, this dwarf of some repute could keep him from being hammered to death. Despite all the rumors he'd heard growing up in Eldarath, what he knew of their actions during the War of the Ancients directly contradicted the elven slurs. One thing he did not grasp, was why the dwarf before him was calling himself a dwarf. In the past, 'Earthen' had been the correct term. He pondered quietly as he remembered dwarves, while long lived compared to Tauren or Furbolgs, were still very much mortal, or so he'd been taught. Perhaps the elven slur had become a proper name for their race over the long millennia.
Laronar exhaled, before responding. "A gryphon, you call it? Hmm. Yes, I think one of them could make the journey to Kalimdor...but you would need to stop on the isles around the Maelstrom before trying to fly past it. Many...unsavory species live on those isles. Trolls, mostly, but other creatures yet linger. I would not try such a journey alone."
The two became friends rather quickly as the night wore on. Laronar learned the dwarf's name was Bjaldi, and much like Liu Lang, he was a shaman. They decided it was better, and easier for the rest of the clan, who called themselves Wildhammers, if they did not see the rare variant of elf. Bjaldi claimed tensions were high enough with the High Elves, and the latent racism would likely carry to Laronar, despite very clearly not being of Quel'thalas.
Laronar returned for the next several nights, adventuring with the dwarf as the effects of the herb led him to do stupid, and potentially life-ending things for amusement. Laronar, for his part, kept him alive, and brought him back to his cave before the sun rose. After the seventh day of such escapades, he was ready to move on, and explore the rest of the easternmost continent.
Bjaldi bid him a fond farewell, after the druid shared with him enough seeds to grow his own stash of the potent herb, and the two agreed that in time, they would meet again. The gryphons of the area he had learned was called the Hinterlands, let him leave unchallenged, and he headed north, curious about the elves and 'humans' the dwarf had mentioned resided there.
What he found of humanity was not all that impressive. They were tiny, pale, furless, and had a tendency to ruin natural settings in the name of expanding their giant stone cities. Those, were where he saw humanity's darker nature. Thieves bounded past his rooftop hiding places, thugs beat each other in the spaces between their buildings, and every human he saw at their trading market seemed far too obsessed with gold. More than once it had led to outright murder. Those too poor to afford food were mutilated and beaten, while those with more than enough gold to share bought more food than they could ever possibly consume by themselves. Most of it, he saw, ended up in the city's trash when the lavish feasts were finished. He spent roughly a week flying from Arathor to Lordaeron, and then leaving, somewhat disappointed. He'd expected more of the races of this continent, but it seemed humans, dwarves, and banished elves were all it had to offer.
When he came upon the northernmost tip of the world's eastern landmass, his sharp eyes saw nothing resembling an elven city. It took him most of a day before he realized that their lands were covered in magic, and indeed once he broke through that initial illusion, he found that the Highborne had literally drenched their land with mana. It permeated everything, and he flew towards its source, curious as to what his wayward cousins had wrought without the guidance of Malfurion and Tyrande.
He did not fly directly over the font of magic, for he knew it would be well defended. He could sense it well enough from one of the mana-twisted trees upon the isle the Highborne had created it on. Despite being irritated that, somehow, they had managed to recreate the Well of Eternity to a degree, he was forced to admit that he had seen with his own eyes that living in harmony with mana and nature was indeed possible.
Of the elves themselves, he could understand their tongue, more or less, and learned that along with their height and muscles, the wayward Highborne had also lost their near-immortal life spans, now lasting, at most, only a few millennia before perishing to old age. With his curiosity sated, and two weeks spent hiding from the peering eyes of elves and humans, Laronar flew south again, and headed for the only Kaldorei outpost on this continent, and one he had Staghelm to thank for existing.
The Twilight Grove was empty when he landed within it. He had found more humans in the bright woods around the grove, but evidently none had managed to find the secret elven hideaway. He found the portal inactive, and after repairing a few weathered runes upon it and giving it a magical jumpstart, it hummed to life, and he stepped through into the Dreamway.
He was met with the imposing snout of a green wyrm, and bowed, as it sniffed him, and spoke. "Laronar Stormclaw...we had heard that you had perished some time ago...and now here I find you, opening another gate to the Dream, one we had long given up maintaining."
Laronar chuckled. "Well, as you can see good dragon, I'm not quite dead. As for the portal...we should maintain it. The Highborne we exiled some millennia past still persist, or rather, their descendants do. They've made another font of magic similar to the Well of Eternity. It is at the heart of their lands, but they seem to be living in harmony with mana, and nature...we should keep an eye upon it. It will draw demons to it like feces draws flies."
The dragon, a female he realized, nodded once. "I will inform Stormrage, and set a guard. Welcome home, Stormclaw." The ephemeral dragon lifted off, and Laronar headed for the portal to the Dreamgrove. He flew towards Ashamane's Fall then, to confer with his patron. He found a statue of her erected in the center of the area the Ashen had made 'holy', and knelt before it as he reached out to her.
"What brings you back here, my wandering druid?" The ghostly panther's voice echoed in his skull, but she did not physically manifest.
"I have a...gap...in my memory. Six hundred years is a long time. I'd like to remember what we did during that time." He felt the panther's worry flood him as he spoke.
"You recall nothing? At all? That is...worrying. You are correct, six centuries is a long time to lose, but there are things we learned during that time that you must remember. Hmm…" The pause on her end drew longer, and longer. Eventually, he'd been sitting for several hours, but she did again reach out to him. "There is one who has agreed to help recover what you have forgotten...his power is more suited to this than my own...and...you and he will get along, I think. Travel southward via the Dream, until you reach the land of your friend Liu. Once there, you will understand what you need to do."
Laronar thanked his patron again, and almost left just as quickly, that is, until a pair of druids in their cat forms stopped him in the middle of the Dreamgrove. They shifted to their elven forms, revealing them to be a pair of sisters, rather lovely, with hair of varying shades of green. The younger spoke first. "Shan'do Stormclaw...we feared you dead. You disappeared for so long, and without a word...but Shan'do Moonclaw was convinced you were still alive."
Laronar stifled a yawn, and nodded. His arms crossed as he replied, and he did not quite realize the show he was putting on just by moving. His upper torso had become, in a word, glorious. A prime example of how well-muscled a Kaldorei male could become. Unfortunately, he was not yet aware of its potency, and the subtleties of romance he had once known rather well had faded with over a thousand years of inaction. "Well, here I am. Alive. I've forgotten the past six centuries...but Ashamane has bid me to traverse the Dream in an effort to regain my memory. Did you two need something?"
The eldest spoke now. "I am Naria, and this is Saria. Ashamane bid us to follow you...a prospect I had not expected to look forward to, until now."
It took Laronar a full minute to realize that, yes, that was seduction in the elder sister's voice, or at least, a tone that suggested it. One lengthy green eyebrow rose up rather high, but Laronar focused on the task at hand. "I see. Well, sisters, I welcome the company. Did Ashamane mention what you are to accomplish by joining me?"
The younger sister spoke again. "We are to learn from you, one of the oldest Feral Druids still living. Master Moonclaw said we were the most adept he had, but he could not bestow on us the title of Sharpclaw...he said that was your responsibility."
Laronar chuckled, and headed for the portal to the Dream. He'd stocked up on food as he'd passed through the Dreamgrove, and assumed the women had prepared as well. If Thaon said they were competent, he would trust his contemporary's evaluation of them. "So you wish to be Sharpclaws...I haven't trained a Sharpclaw since before the War of the Shifting Sands...very well. We will travel as you learn, and make use of the lengthy journey."
The sisters fell into step beside him as he entered the portal. Naria, the eldest, spoke again. "Where are we traveling to, exactly?"
"To a land called Pandaria...it is evidently hidden on the waking plane, but if we reach it via the Dream, we should be able to contact the Ancients who reside there. One of them, apparently, will help me regain my memory." Laronar glanced at the pair as they stepped through the portal. The elder sister was walking rather close, not that he minded, while the younger seemed immune to whatever charm he'd managed to work on her sister.
Once in the Dream, determining direction was difficult for the elves, and they relied on their patron to steer them in the right direction, at least. A vast expanse of green and various plants and spirits lay between them and their destination. The further they went from the green flight's influence, the more wild the Dream would become. Laronar estimated a length of several weeks for their trek, if they were walking, which would give them time to practice as well.
That first day they stopped after sixteen hours of walking in relative silence, and the elder druid put them through their paces, evaluating what they already knew, and offering advice for where they were lacking. When they finally fell asleep, he looked around the dreamscape, and toked on his pipe. At that moment, he was rather glad he'd chosen nature's path as his own.