As the death knight Aertemis swept away into the city of Darnassus, leaving her secluded garden — and saronite armor — behind, Doradrassil sighed. Aertemis crossed the northern bridge over the lake and turned eastward, dusting a too-lax Watcher with frost as she went.
Doradrassil let herself lapse out of her shadowmelding and leaned against a column, stroking her chin with the knuckle of her thumb. Aertemis had seemed ready to move on, for the first time in a long time. And the young Warden had a feeling she knew what her ward was planning to do next. She slipped back into the temple, where two priestesses held up the death knight’s discarded cloak in curiosity. Seeing Doradrassil approaching, they nodded a greeting.
“I’ll be taking that, thanks,” Doradrassil intoned. “I have business with the death knight.” The priestesses handed over the cloak readily, which Doradrassil took quickly as if confiscating contraband. She returned to the garden outside the temple and located Aertemis’ hidden stash of saronite armor, draping the cloak over them. She arranged it carefully and folded the cloak under the armor, the cape’s folds and wrinkles creating the illusion of the texture of a simple rock.
She left the temple grounds, walking the same path Aertemis had earlier traveled, and headed into the city proper, traveling in the open. In the city she bought a large pack and enough food for a few weeks in the wilderness.
* * *
Doradrassil shifted uncomfortably as the waves crashed against the boat. She was used to sea travel, but this was the first time in a while that she had brought her umbra crescent out of storage. Its weight was off-putting and uncomfortable when hooked to her side. She realized that she had gone too long without wielding it, and needed to get used to it again. This journey would be a good time to get reacquainted with it, she decided, now glad to have brought it with her.
She pulled from her pack some of the records she had found in the library before leaving Darnassus. Among them, the record of the fall of Arthas and his subsequent merging with the Lich King. While it wasn’t written for the purpose for which she now needed it, it may just do well enough to help her dig up enough of the past. She pored over it and tried to soak up every detail, quickly evaluating what could be relevant to her search of a very cold trail indeed.
Kageseji’s trail was fresh compared to this, she thought. Kage’s trail had been less than two years old. This was more than a decade and a half cold.
* * *
Valiance Keep was a quiet establishment these days. Looking about at the docks, numerous and wide, designed for an exceptional influx of troops, it clearly had not always been that way. Of course, it hadn’t even been built when Aertemis first came this way.
“Aertemis was dispatched along with two other Watchers to investigate the rise of undead in the north,” she recalled out loud, looking out over the wilderness. “From Teldrassil to Northrend isn’t all that far, but still large enough that a sizable boat would be needed. Given the secrecy of Watcher activity, she and the others would have disembarked some distance from the coast and come ashore in a rowboat. Given the time and activity since then… I’m not likely to ever find the remnants of that boat. But if I could…that would be a good start.”
She headed back to the docks and looked along the beachline, to the north and the south. South of Valiance Keep were ancient Kaldorei, now naga, ruins. Mallory would be fascinated by them, if they weren’t so dangerous, Doradrassil noted. It would have made a poor landing place for a rowboat, and the naga likely were already present when Aertemis had first come through. Without Valiance Keep itself, the area it occupied would have been a wide beach before an open plain. Not a Watcher’s likely choice.
But north of the settlement…
To Valiance’s north was a beach surrounded by hills on both sides. It would have provided initial cover and allowed Aertemis and her companions to get established before moving inland. Doradrassil left the keep and made the wide circle over barely-viable farmland to finally reach the cold beach.
It was bleak for a beach… The sand a dull gray, littered with ruined crates and seashells, which somehow seemed miserable in themselves. Doradrassil shivered as she surveyed it, pulling her green Warden’s cloak around her body. Two boats lay beached, well worn but still too new to have been the one used by Doradrassil’s charge. Besides that, they lay in the open, able to be seen from almost anywhere nearby.
But to her left, quite a bit further up the beach, lay another boat. The muddy sloshing beneath Doradrassil’s feet told her that this bay likely flooded depending on the tide, and either was flooded when Aertemis passed through, or she and her companions had dragged the boat from the beach to the cover of the hills. This was more fitting. The boat appeared sufficiently aged, and seemed to have been here long enough to have been used by her party of Watchers. Normally, night elf vessels would be elaborate enough to recognize at a glance, but this would have been more simplistic…more utilitarian. Doradrassil knelt next to it and examined what was left of the rudder. At the handle, about the size of the circle made by touching the thumb to the forefinger, was a small circular crest.
The crest of the Watchers.
Now she had a starting point, and could put herself in her former mentor’s shoes. Where would Aertemis have gone from here? she wondered. If the veteran Watcher was being asked to investigate the cause of the rising dead, she likely would have eventually made her way toward Icecrown Glacier, before the Citadel had been constructed. Then she would have gone north…which posed the problem of which route north she’d have taken. Her tracks were hopelessly covered and washed away by tides years ago, so Doradrassil had to again think like her mentor.
North of the beach lay a path leading up a hill, and another leading slightly east, out towards an ice-covered coast and a tuskarr village. These days, Doradrassil would have taken the hill, seeking the plains for cover from potential Horde ships near the coast. But no Horde had yet shown an interest in Northrend at the time. The desired cover would have been from the rising dead, using the coastal hills for that purpose. So again, the beach.
But what about the tuskarr? the young Warden asked herself silently. We know them to be friendly now, but they were an unknown then. Would it have been possible for Aertemis to know they weren’t responsible for the undead?
She approached the village stealthily, creeping up over the edge of a hill to peer down at it, umbra crescent at the ready in case of a threat from behind. She watched for a few hours, reaching into her pack for some food. It didn’t take her long, however, to judge that even back then, Aertemis had to have come to the conclusion that they weren’t the cause of trouble here. In fact, from her observations, they appeared downright pleasant. She saw fishermen fishing the frigid waters with nets and spears, but nothing that indicated their culture had any element of arcane, fel, or necromantic practice. She had long since learned it was a mistake to deem any people incapable of learning a particular skill, but at least they did not seem to have evidence of such studies among them now. Therefore, Aertemis might have passed right through the village, perhaps seeking information. Befriending the locals would have been advantageous in an unknown land anyway…
Doradrassil stowed her pack and leapt down, walking openly into the village. The closer she retraced Aertemis’s steps, the better. She was by far the tallest inhabitant of the little hamlet, and got many stares for it. Most stares were friendly enough. They had seen their fair share of the Alliance’s member races during the Northrend campaign. But then there was one… He stared in stunned disbelief not at the night elf herself, but at the vicious weapon at her side.
Doradrassil paused and looked right at him. “This isn’t the first of these you’ve seen,” she deduced, patting the weapon. The walrus creature merely shook his head. His whiskers appeared aged and gray… The Warden wasn’t sure how long the lifespan of these creatures was, but surely he was old enough to have seen Aertemis before. Surely…
“Who did you see carrying one of these before?” she asked, trying to sound casual.
“Three others of your kind,” he said. “Years ago. They came through the same way as you,” he continued, gesturing toward the direction from which Doradrassil had arrived, “and went east, past the delta.” He shrugged. “Didn’t see them again though. Big land, this is, but dangerous. But they looked capable. I’m sure they made it just fine.”
Doradrassil bowed low. “Thank you. You may not realize it, but you’ve done me a great favor.”
The tuskarrseemed shocked at Doradrassil’s low bow, and responded in kind as best as his shape would let him. “Happy to help. Be careful.”
So she went across the delta, she thought as she left the village. She pulled the book from her pack, examining a map of Northrend at the back, which included the path Arthas was believed to have taken through the land. He moved from east to west, ending where he delved into Azjol-Nerub and then resurfaced at the very foot of Icecrown. If Aertemis had crossed the delta…she probably ran into Arthas’ forces that very same day the tuskarr saw her.
A chill ran over Doradrassil. The thought that Aertemis was likely dead within hours of that sighting unnerved her deeply. She pulled her cloak tighter and made her way up to a bridge that crossed the delta. Not long after crossing it, she came to the Dragonblight’s frozen woods and an old, abandoned Alliance camp. Aertemis’ excursion had taken place before the night elves had joined the Alliance, so it couldn’t have been hers. But it looked as though it had been a night elf encampment during the Northrend campaign against the Lich King. No signs remained of the Alliance forces, but freezing dryads and nymphs wandered the forest and tended the garden still, including the moonwell that the night elves had set up here.
Aertemis and her fellow Watchers would have stuck close to the woods when there was a choice, Doradrassil reasoned, especially if they were looking for the undead. But where would they have gone from here? Closer to Azjol-Nerub? Maybe the Nerubians wandered farther from its entrance back then. And they…certainly would have attracted the attention of one looking to find the cause of undead risings.
Doradrassil crept between the trees, peering toward Azjol-Nerub, trying to visualize what must have happened, her eyes focused like that of a madwoman, darting from here to there and searching everything she could for even the faintest remaining hint of that day’s events.
Doradrassil leaned closer, brushing her hair out of the way, scarcely believing her eyes. After all these years, how could a footprint still remain? It was frozen solid beneath a thick layer of transparent ice, but clearly was the footprint of the Watchers’ unique boots.
“Elune be praised,” Doradrassil breathed. It had all been preserved in ice over the years. She focused on the footprint, taking in every detail she could, and began to look around for more. Now that she had seen one, maybe there could be more…
And there were. Only a trained Watcher could ever have noticed, but now that there had been one, the others became more apparent. Whatever distant sounds of wildlife and winds there might have been, they seemed to die into silence as Doradrassil examined the scene.
Three Watchers, one of them a Warden. One of them steps forward… Not the Warden. The Warden pulls her back. She takes a knee in the snow. All three dart back and behind trees. What were they hiding from?
Doradrassil sprinted out to the road. Before she got to it, she saw in the same well-hidden but preserved fashion, the massive footprint of a heavy and heavily-armored human. Tiny, fine lines skirted each of his footprints; his boots were lined with fur. He saw them and started toward them. Doradrassil continued to walk what now had clearly been a battlefield. They split up. The Warden moved east as her other Watchers moved westward. The heavily-armored man went east after the Warden. His stride was…long, but even. He wasn’t running, but either he was impatient or very tall, perhaps both. Skeletal footprints followed the other two. The man dogged the Warden constantly. Her footprints darted this way and that, in one place she either rolled or was knocked to her back… The pursuit continued until…
Another set of footprints. Too fresh to have been from the battle. Very fresh, in fact. Seeing this, Doradrassil took one cautious step back….
And looked down at her own footprint where she had just stood. She chuckled to herself, amused for being bothered by her own print.
But what’s that one? Off to the side, there was another that was too big to be hers.
Too heavily armored.
And very fresh.
Her hand ripped the umbra crescent from her side, whirling to face her attacker. It crashed against her attacker’s weapon, echoing over and over across the valley. As the echoes resounded, accented only by their breathing, she knew before long who she was facing, and desperately wished now that she hadn’t come alone.
She pulled away from her opponent and leapt back, putting distance between them as she sized her enemy up.
“You’re getting sloppy,” the intruder taunted.
Pale blue eyes glowed from within the face-obscuring helmet, a fatalistic gleam in them. But it wasn’t the eyes Doradrassil was drawn to… It was the vicious umbra crescent in the attacker’s hand. Doradrassil had never met this woman in person before, and had greatly hoped she would never have to. Her reputation preceded her. Her green cloak almost completely encircled her, trimmed with daggers that Doradrassil knew were not just for show.
But she had no time to dwell on this sudden appearance now… She didn’t yet understand why, but apparently she had a fight on her hands. And though she was not likely to survive, she intended to give the Watchers’ fugitive founder, Maiev Shadowsong, a fight she would never forget.