The legend of Ashbringer started when World of Warcraft was originally released. The orange legendary weapon was discovered in the game files by data miners, and the stats and proc on the weapon were truly amazing. At the time, even epic weapons were extremely rare, so seeing something with an orange tag on it was more than a little unique and awe-inspiring. However, other than the datamined weapon, there was no indication of it appearing in game -- that is, until players slowly leveled from launch to their first steps into the Plaguelands.
In Patch 1.3.0, players were introduced to a new dungeon called Dire Maul. This dungeon introduced the Shen'dralar, a neutral faction of Highborne who had made their home in the ruins of Dire Maul. The Shen'dralar were led by Prince Tortheldrin -- but more importantly, the library in which the Shen'dralar made their home included zealots who had some interesting news for players:
"Has the Prince recanted the tale of the Ashbringer? It is our most favorite of his stories. His favorite is the follow up to the Ashbringer. Of course, nobody has ever been able to get that story out of him."
"The Master holds great interest in the Lair of Nefarian. If only someone would defeat the dragon and his minions and retell the tale to the Prince. I bet that would loosen the Prince's lips. The Ashbringer could be found!"
Suddenly interest in the sword resurged, although Blackwing Lair hadn't even been implemented yet. Players could already turn in Onyxia's head for valuable quest rewards -- perhaps the head of Nefarian would give some sort of clue as to Ashbringer's location when turned in to the Prince?
Later in Patch 1.5, battlegrounds were introduced. In Alterac Valley, players could loot dead players for random items required to summon ancient creatures that would defend their side. Other items would sometimes drop as well, including Nat Pagle's Guide to Extreme Anglin', a book written by the fishing trainer Nat Pagle in Dustwallow Marsh. The flavor text reads, "This book is missing every page but the last." As far as that last page goes, it read, "...and so that's where you'll find the legendary sword of the Scarlet Highlord, Ashbringer. Ain't it amazing what you run into in an ordinary day of fishin?"
Nothing happened. No notes, no quests, no suggestions as to where the sword might actually be. This did not stop speculation on the sword's existence, and players worked feverishly on several theories, one of which involved two NPCs in the Western Plaguelands, both with fairly similar stories. The first was Bardu Sharpeye, a tauren who made his home at the Bulwark that bordered Tirisfal Glades and the Western Plaguelands. While Bardu offered no quests or services, talking to him revealed the following:
The other NPC was a dwarf named Alexia Ironknife, found at Chillwind Camp in the southern region of Western Plaguelands. Like Bardu, she offered no quests or services, but her story was oddly similar to the tauren's:"Hello. I've set up camp here at the Bulwark to make my preparations for my journey into the Plaguelands. I've heard rumor that a great human wizard took up residency in Hearthglen not terribly long ago. He was commissioned by the Scarlet Crusade to fashion their warriors and hunters with bows and guns. It's said that he completed a remarkable weapon before the Crusade killed him. I guess their mistrust of the arcane has grown."
Players attempted to put two and two together and came up with what they thought was four: Ashbringer existed, it was created by a mage who'd been killed by the Scarlet Crusade for some unknown reason, and the secret of the sword lay with the dead mage ... wherever he was. It was around this time that players pointed out a curious item that dropped in the Western Plaguelands called Timolain's Phylactery, which dropped off of Large Vile Slime in the Weeping Cave of Western Plaguelands.
"Greetings. Don't have too much time to talk -- I'm just using Chillwind as a camp to get some rest before heading to Hearthglen. I've heard word that before they went crazy, the Scarlet Crusade had a mage working for them who was trying to create powerful bows and guns for their soldiers. I'm not sure if he succeeded or not ... the Crusade killed him before any of his finished product made it out. Maybe they killed him to keep it a secret ... or maybe they distrust the arcane that much."
Timolain's Phylactery was unique and BoP; it didn't start any quests or give any flavor text to indicate exactly what it was for. Players who were lucky enough to get the drop scoured every inch of Western Plaguelands for a lead, convinced that somewhere, somehow, there was a key that would clue them in on where to obtain the legendary sword. Perhaps, players theorized, you had to be carrying the Spectral Essence obtained in Scholomance in order to see the ghost of the dead mage. Perhaps you had to take the phylactery to the Prince in Dire Maul or to Nat Pagle.
Unfortunately, all speculation halted with the release of Patch 1.7, as Timolain's Phylactery was removed from the game. Players continued to search, unwilling to believe that the item that had been referenced and hinted at for so long simply didn't exist. Eventually, a European CM admitted that the weapon was not in game, but this admission was followed by a confirmation by Eyonix:
It wasn't long, however, before players once again let their minds linger over thoughts of the legendary blade ...