The Long Vigil Begins
Before many of the druids even realized Ashamane had abandoned the feral druids as well, Malfurion called all of the druids to the Moonglade, and once they were all assembled, Laronar began to understand just how vastly outnumbered his fellow feral druids were, and just how out of place he appeared next to his kin. Each wore respectable robes, engraved with runes meant to draw on and combine arcane and natural magic with ease, but he remained shirtless, in naught but a kilt.
He'd grown a pair of 'spaulders' from the seeds of a herb Kota and he had used for smoking, and with time, had encouraged the leaves upon them to grow both more potent, and harder to break. They made decent armor, and when crushed and smoked, were quite enjoyable. Aside from his shoulders, everything else remained much the same, for he saw no reason to change his attire. This was a time of peace, he didn't need armor. When the peace inevitably ended, for he was realizing it must always at some point end, he would make himself armor as the others had. He expected to be much stronger, and wiser by then though.
As Malfurion addressed the crowd, he announced that the dragon Ysera was calling the druids to guard the dream, as her dragonflight did, and together, they would protect it, and nourish the natural evolution of flora and fauna on Azeroth's sundered surface. They would sleep not briefly, but for months, centuries, even millennia, perhaps. Awakening only when the natural world needed their power. The defense of the forests would be left to the Sentinels, who were now experienced in the ways of war, and would only grow more so during this 'long vigil'.
Laronar declined the offer to sit in a dirty hovel for millennia, asleep, and instead promised to train new recruits to aid in Azeroth's defense. Malfurion, for once, did not argue the point. He then explained that the feral arts were indeed better suited for guarding the physical world, while the other two branches of druidism were, by far, more suited to protecting the ephemeral dreamscape the Archdruid seemed almost enamored with.
After centuries of not bearing offspring, many had begun to wonder why the most famous couple amongst the night elven race had not yet procreated. It had taken Laronar a while, but once he realized just how often Malfurion visited the Dream, he began to understand. The druid was drawn to that realm like a fly to Nightsaber dung. It consumed his every waking thought, and though the growing distance between his Shan'do and his mate was potentially concerning, it was still entirely their business. Not his.
Laronar sat quietly beside Storm as the majority of the druids flew into the air. Almost as many simply walked to the nearby Barrow Dens within the Moonglade, while the others would spread out, so that not all of them needed to be awakened at once, if trouble arose. The only time that should happen, Malfurion had said during his speech, was if the Legion did indeed return, as so many feared they would.
In his place, Malfurion left Fandral Staghelm to lead those in charge of training new defenders of the Dream. At first, it seemed Fandral would be much the same as Malfurion, when it came to leadership, but that soon proved to not be the case.
Over the long centuries, Laronar, Naralex, and several other druids had reached out to the Tauren. They remembered the honorable allies who stood with them against the demons, and they'd heard from Laronar that they knew much of druidism. His skill was a credit to the Tauren's techniques.
After the War of the Satyr especially, the newly formed Cenarion Circle had attracted many Tauren, and for a long time, their presence in the Moonglade had not been an issue, for Malfurion Stormrage himself welcomed them to come and learn, or leave, as they pleased. The Moonglade was a haven for all who followed Cenarius. For a long time, nobody seemed to mind.
Things had changed now, however. Almost immediately after they sensed their Shan'do return to sleep, Fandral made a decree of his own. None of the Tauren druids had gone into the Barrow Dens, for the journey to the Dream, for their race, was extremely difficult. Ysera had tied the elves to it more than anyone had realized.
Fandral claimed that, with the majority of the elves gone, the Tauren, Furbolgs, and other sentient races not tied to Cenarius himself should also return home. Laronar had, by pure instinct, responded with what Malfurion had often said himself, "All who walk the path of nature pay homage to Cenarius. This glade is a haven for his followers. All are welcome."
Remulos, a son of the Forest Lord himself, had nodded in approval, and then offered the invitation for the Tauren to stay. There were more than a few who had been openly shocked by Fandral's statement. It was as if the specter of the elven empire's racism had returned in Fandral. In the face of Laronar and Remulos' words though, they stayed, if a bit awkwardly.
For twenty eight hundred years, almost three millennia, Laronar stayed slightly separated from his kin as he'd returned to his quiet grove in Stonetalon to enjoy his stash of herb, and train those students crafty enough to follow rumor of a powerful, hermetic druid all the way into the mountains. With each passing year, he saw his people grow more and more insular, thanks in no small part to Fandral. More and more Tauren left the Moonglade, and Naralex, being a healer at heart, began to look for a way to help their shorter-lived allies.
Though he was never public with it, Fandral's influence spread quietly through Nighthaven, a place free of Remulos' presence, as he focused on tending the wilds. Slowly, more and more Tauren left as they decided that loyalty to their tribes outweighed loyalty to the increasingly racist Cenarion Circle. In an effort to mend relations, Naralex planned to study the area known as the Barrens, to see if he could make it more hospitable for the Tauren tribes.
Throughout Kalimdor the elves had spread, and while Ashenvale grew insular, the lands south had not. Kalimdor was a wild, untamed place, and the sentients who lived there got along because they all needed to survive together. Alone, the wilds would end them. The Tauren stayed in the area known as Mashan'she, north of the primarily elven jungles of Feralas. Naralex claimed he would find a way to make the more barren lands to the east more hospitable, and hopefully that would mend relations once their allies had more space to grow and live.
One of Laronar's students, a 'Druid of the Wild' known as Thal'darah, had gone south into the Stonetalon Mountains. Having mastered all branches of the druidic arts thanks in no small part to the fact that his master had been able to focus on training him, since he had so few students, Thal'darah had established a grove that soon took the place of Nighthaven in the midst of the mountain peaks.
The Tauren were receptive, for they had long traded with the elves of Ashenvale from their mountain-top settlements, primarily for metal-forged weapons. The Harpies were a nuisance to both races, and often, the Sentinels would join the Tauren hunts to cull their numbers. They always came back, though.
Tauren from many tribes came to Thal'darah's Grove, and when Fandral learned of it, he seemed not to care. It was outside of his sphere of influence, and he was not interested in what a couple of mountain-dwelling elves and bull men did together. Laronar, who by pure coincidence lived nearby with his ancient hut and the now heavily flourishing forest he'd created by giving his own energy to it daily, was always proud of his former apprentice. If he was being honest, Thal'darah had been the kind of student who excelled because he put in the effort. His own instruction had been minimal. Some students, he'd found, simply excelled by themselves.
By this point, Laronar's student count had almost vanished entirely, but he didn't mind. His little grove had exploded into a teeming forest, and he found that he enjoyed hunting within it. Sometimes, he would leap through the branches just for sport. They way everything had grown made traversing them a viable option while hunting. They were also strong enough to support his cat form's weight.
It was as he was enjoying another moonless night of sport that he sensed newcomers in his forest. The Tauren nearby sometimes hunted here, but as he usually stalked them just out of their sight, giving them only glimpses of his form before roaring at them and sending them fleeing in fear. They'd come to believe the forest was haunted by some kind of massive ghost panther. For some reason, Ashamane had found that incredibly amusing.
Thal'darah, who had passed this knowledge on to his old master with amusement in his tone, had gone on to explain that the tribe's new custom would be to avoid that forest, despite the large quantity of food within. They did not want to disturb a spirit. That had left the older druid chuckling for a good five minutes. In truth, he had trained several druids over the years, and the tribes sometimes welcomed him for a smoke session during which they traded stories, and plied him for wisdom. It was mainly their 'brave hunters' the druid sent fleeing, for too often the mortals took more than they needed.
The intruders this time, however, were a pair of Sentinels, judging by their soft steps, and tensed, but well-curved bodies. As they moved deeper into the forest, he stalked towards them, and both immediately halted. They could sense he was nearby. They had potential. He circled behind them, and dropped to the ground. The elder of the pair, and the more attractive, at least to his eyes, turned, and gasped, before dropping to a knee.
The massive saber-toothed panther paused, eyeing the two. Usually he just chased other elves off. He had no interest in being forced to dream. These moved with more purpose, however. He approached the kneeling pair, for the younger of the two, face yet unmarked, had also knelt. Laronar eyed the pair of azure-haired heads, and then carved a symbol into the ground beneath them with a single claw. A crescent moon, and a small circle resting in its curve.
The elder saw it, and smiled. "You startled us, elder." She rose as he did, the natural magic of the world itself remaking him into his first form, that of an elf. He'd studied the healing arts between nightly hunts while he'd lived this hermetic existence, and this had only helped with his physical body. What scars there were, had vanished, leaving the heavily muscled, and as always, shirtless, abdomen of the elf open to the cold night air, unblemished. His skin tended to almost sparkle in the moonlight, and some elves yet remembered what caste that meant he was tied to. Most druids however, tended to ignore things like skin tone entirely. Their surviving remnant of the old empire had mixed many bloodlines, and many shades were common to the elves of Ashenvale.
He hid his amusement as the younger one just stared, obviously, at the ultimate example of Kaldorei masculinity, something that was rather rare, now the druids were asleep. The elder, who had to be her sister now that he saw and compared their features, appeared immune to his natural charisma. Potential indeed. "Why have you sought me out, sisters?"
The younger one spoke up, eyes refocusing as the druid's soft, unused baritone cut through the surrounding din of the forest. "Shan'do Stormrage has requested your aid, Archdruid."
Laronar blinked. "Malfurion? He's actually awake?" He frowned. Nothing, not even his lovely mate, could draw that druid from the dream realm. Especially once he was in it. It had an almost possessive hold over him, but whenever the subject was broached he would simply insist that they too would feel the call to dream in time. Such was Ysera's blessing.
They both seemed surprised at how casually he referred to literally the most iconic Kaldorei alive, except for perhaps his mate or his brother. Laronar hardly noticed. After centuries of studying with him, Laronar liked to think he knew the famed druid fairly well. "Tell him I am on my way. My strength is his." He bowed, and the two Sentinels exited the woods, mounted up again, and began racing back towards the shadowed boughs of Ashenvale in the distance.
Laronar took his night colored owl form, and flew to the highest peak near his tiny little cabin. His forest was, by comparison to Ashenvale, little more than a grove. But he was rather fond of it. As he landed, his eyes moved north, as they did every night when he was drawn up here. Looming over the shadowy forest was Hyjal, by far the largest mountain on the planet, supporting the largest tree. He was under no illusions as to why his grove, and the planet, flourished. He'd seen the world's regrowth as it happened.
Millennia later, the scars of the ancient war were mostly reclaimed by nature, invisible to the eye…if one avoided the eastern coast. Many of Kalimdor's natives did. Truthfully, he was only a few hours from Ashenvale. Less, if he flew. Normally he'd take Storm, but it had become apparent that the grove Laronar loved so much was only big enough to handle one large predator's appetite.
Storm hadn't minded, though. In these eons of peace, the Sentinels were using him to father strong, healthy mounts out of Nighthaven. It was rare to find a Nightsaber male that was so…dominant. He understood why there were so few naturally. Their libido was practically insatiable, and the number of powerful females was large. In the wild, he would've eventually run into one he couldn't subdue, and likely ended up slain. Shandris had claimed that it helped with preparing the Sentinel Army though, and thus he'd allowed it, once he'd heard that Storm was no longer prowling the Moonglade. He knew Shandris visited his cat's stable often enough, but he'd avoided crossing her path for millennia.
By now she'd figured out whose word she could trust, and whose she could not. Evidently, from what little gossip he received these days, there had even been an altercation when she found out just how many lies her top lieutenant had spun. She'd tried finding him several times, and had succeeded, only to find the aged elf was a far cry from the naïve druid with a thing for cats she'd originally fallen for. The Laronar she knew had been replaced by a 'wisdom spouting pacifist who looked at plants all day'. Or so she'd termed his current studies, before leaving in a huff of irritation and lowered expectations.
He hadn't minded much, as he'd finally found inner peace. His cat form was born to the shadow, but he enjoyed healing just as much as hunting. That, more than anything, was what had kept him from flying off to join Malfurion immediately. Someone had to watch this forest. The animals had come to trust him as they would a Keeper, bringing those who were injured to his hut. The fact that he still needed to hunt for food was a testament to his healing skills. Between drying meat, and picking food from the forest itself, his food stores were fine. His role in this little hermit's paradise was culling the old to make way for the new. Ashamane had taught him well of her own place in nature's cycle, and it was one that he maintained where he could.
He gave the owl equivalent of a sigh, and flapped back down towards his home, shifting as he landed. Normally he liked sleeping in his owl form, as the Owl Spirit was rather clever, and would often toss him a riddle to gnaw on at seemingly random times. The wise spirit was one of the main reasons he'd begun to prefer the owl's shape more. That wouldn't be the case tonight, though.
A genuine Grove Keeper, a child of Cenarius, was waiting for him when he returned. He bowed low, and let the ancient being speak. "I will tend to your forest in your absence. You have given much to the land. It will not forget this gift, I promise you. Now go, Archdruid. Stormrage needs you. All of you."
Laronar raised a brow, "All? All of us? For what?"
The jade skinned face formed a smirk. "Ask him yourself, once you arrive."
It took a while to gather what he might need. If all the druids were awake, that meant something big was happening. Legion-returning big. War of the Satyr big. He frowned at the leather armor he'd been all but ordered to wear during the last war. He truly despised it. All it had ultimately done was limit his cat form's movement. Fighting with it had been like fighting in soggy robes. Moreover, he'd utterly failed to maintain it. Millennia of 'out of sight, out of mind' had caused the metal holding it all together to rust.
As the jerkin fell apart into its base pieces from a single touch, Laronar let them fall. "Forget this…" he muttered. After speaking with, growing, and studying plant life for so long, he was reasonably sure he could craft a decent, comfortable set of tree bark armor to go with his leafy shoulders. Of course, if he was using bark for armor, only one tree would do.
Unsurprisingly, after arriving at Nordrassil, Laronar found that many druids had the same idea he did. Armor made of the World Tree's bark. He almost hadn't found enough to safely pry from the base, but he managed to get enough for a pair of gauntlets. Crafting them had been relatively simple. Getting them blessed by a Keeper, so they didn't shatter in seconds, would be the truly difficult part. Such items were not lightly created.
Hyjal was packed with druids now, on every slope, in every branch. He knew they were numerous, but he hadn't realized just how many thousands had actually finished the training. After one embarrassing greeting to a former student who evidently wanted nothing to do with his bare-chested master, Laronar stopped looking for the others. He'd almost forgotten in those long years. Being around so many druids again had been a harsh reminder of exactly where the Feral Arts were on their collective totem pole.
Many had done as he had, and shifted their fields of study. Though where he had done so more out of altruism, he found many others had simply abandoned the feral path in favor of far easier and more familiar spellcasting. It was hard to forget sometimes, that many of these elves had once reveled in mana, and used it. It wasn't all that surprising that his race had gravitated to the closest thing to a 'mage' the druidic arts could create. Nor was it surprising, he realized, that he'd saved the study of Balance magic for last. He'd never much cared for damaging spells, and indeed, even using ones fueled by nature and mana alike was too similar, for him at least, to tossing fireballs. It always brought up memories best left buried.
The low rumble of the Horn of Cenarius rang throughout the din under Nordrassil's roots, and the gathered druids slowly quieted as their Shan'do made his appearance. The horns were more majestic, the beard was worthy of yet more envy, and after a closer look, it seemed the druid had awakened recently. He still had serious bedhead, but then, who wouldn't after almost three millennia of sleeping in the dirt?
"Friends, students, druids of the Circle! Attend your ears. I've been informed that our own Fandral Staghelm has done something most disturbing." As Malfurion paused, the gathered druids murmured softly. Laronar tried not to grin, and failed. It was about time that pompous ass made a misstep. If Malfurion was awake, it had to be a big one. "In the icy lands to the north, a place the denizens have apparently named 'Northrend', he has planted branches of our beloved Nordrassil, and crafted new World Trees."
The murmurs picked up in intensity as the elder's eyes went wide, and the students and younger druids began questioning why such a thing warranted a gathering. Many were hushed, but Malfurion continued on regardless, and answered many of their questions as he did. "By doing this, Fandral has exposed the Dream to corruption. This new tree does not have the Dragon Aspect's blessing, and without it, I fear those northern lands will corrupt it. Already, word of war between the local nymphs and peaceful denizens of the continent has reached us. We are going to investigate, and if necessary, bring this tree down. Ysera has decreed it."
"We will fly to Northrend! Together!" The Archdruid raised a fist that Laronar noticed had metal claws coming slightly over the knuckles of his hand. He didn't grasp why Malfurion would need such things, as he could easily shift portions of his body to make something as simple as claws. Then, he remembered. Ashamane still felt slighted by the Archdruid's lack of respect. Evidently, she had not given use of her form back to the Circle over the long years he'd been in his forest. It was a saddening thought, but the reality of the bear form's popularity could not be denied.
He blinked then, as he noticed druids around him taking on various bird forms, and ascending into the sky. Malfurion was at their head, in the form of a massive Storm Crow, wings alight with faint sparks of electricity as he flew higher and higher. Laronar joined the others, opting for his owl form. While Storm Crows were useful, iconic even, he knew owls were quite good at surviving in the cold.
The massive horde of birds drew attention as they flew over Northrend's mostly unpopulated lands, east along the coast. The whole trip lasted several long days, but as they entered the Grizzly Hills, they each saw what Fandral had wrought on the horizon. At first, it seemed a majestic sight, but then, Laronar spied the base of the large tree. Large figures that resembled Tauren were clashing ferociously with blue skinned nymphs, but something was off.
After seeing his share of war, he knew what a battle looked like from the air. Often, he'd been ordered into the air to find leader types amongst the enemy, and then land, stalk towards them, and take them out. The participants of this war did not fight like soldiers. They fought like animals, with little to no regard for strategy, weapons, or tactics. It was bloody, senseless chaos.
Then, Malfurion reminded them all why the legends spoke so highly of his skills. He had shifted his form back, but feathers remained along his arms, and he used them as he glided down through the stormy sky, thousands of birds behind him, hands alight with the magic of the world as he commanded massive roots to rise up, and bind the fighters in place. All of them.
With little more than whisper, and while falling thousands of feet in the air, he'd turned the massive tree's base into a painful looking bramble. Shifting back, he led the druids in a large circle around the tree, and as he flew ahead of them the bramble he'd created followed him. He ensnared those who had been brawling out of his sight, behind the tree's base as he circled the tree.
After three long circles, he finally brought the horde of druids down slightly to the north of the massive tree, towards a carving of a familiar looking bear head. Just outside of it, he spied what Malfurion had likely already seen. Several elves, no doubt whoever Fandral had enlisted for aid in this endeavor to plant more World Trees.
In front of the small group of elves was a massive, shimmering bear and Laronar knew, as he'd spoken with Ursoc before, that this was the Ancient himself. Or at least, a manifestation. Evidently, death was not permanent for those who tied themselves to the Dream. The bear made a dismissive gesture with his paw, and then nodded up at the massive horde of flying druids.
Now that they were closer, and indeed many had already landed, Laronar could see the expression on Fandral's face. That alone, was worth the three days of straight flying in freezing winds. He found a perch of his own, close enough to hear Malfurion as the Archdruid approached, and bowed before Ursoc. The bear nodded once, but said nothing. The furious amber orbs shifted to Fandral, and the Archdruid's tone didn't hide his rage. "Fandral Staghelm, you will answer me! What have you wrought!? More importantly…why?"