Dawn was breaking over the ruins of the Egg. All the survivors had taken shelter inside the Palace; all save for Vaya and her sons.

Cheipar lifted his head from the pillow he had made of his mother’s fur-clad hip. She lay swaddled in the bearskin, her head in Littlefire’s lap, her eyes open but unseeing. Her Glider son sat at attention, eyes closed, face a mask of empty calm. Cheipar wondered whether he was asleep or away on the astral plane.

On the ground in front of them, the bowl of soup Rayek had left them had grown cold and clotted. The stars had still been out when Vaya had rebuffed the Palacemaster’s final attempt to draw her inside. The air itself was warm from the Palace’s aura, but beyond, Cheipar could see the light dancing on the furry frost carpeting the rocks. In the east, the sky was the color of fresh blood.

The Egg’s collapse had left a ragged cliff overlooking the forest below. A dark silhouette stood perched on the very edge of the precipice, heedless of the morning winds that buffeted the mountainside.

**Any news?** Cheipar sent.

**Nothing of consequence,** Rayek replied. Cheipar heard the frustration in his sending. Someone had to stay with the Palace and the survivors, and Swift had convinced Rayek that the College elves needed him. But Cheipar knew he wanted nothing more than to leave Sunstream to tend to the wounded alone, and fly to the Homeland to join the fight.

Rayek offered nothing more, and Cheipar did not ask. They both knew how little use words were in such times. 

Littlefire shuddered; Cheipar could feel the tremor pass through Vaya’s body into his. The Glider blinked, and drew in a tremulous breath. “He’s gone.”

Cheipar did not need to ask who. He could feel it too, a sudden… lifting in the air, like the evaporation of morning dew under the first rays of the Daystar.

Behind him, a little pebble-fall signalled the last of the magic leaving the rocks. It was finally dead then, the living stone that had been their home for four thousand years.

Vaya broke from her stupor. She slowly propped herself on one arm, while the other clutched the bearskin to her shoulders. Cheipar helped her sit up, but he doubted she even felt his touch. She looked over her shoulder at the rubble, then back at her youngest son.

“He’s not here,” she whispered.

Littlefire nodded. “He’s gone ahead.”

The little pod of starstone that had been slowly orbiting the ruins like a shining crystalline moon suddenly dropped from the sky. The Wolfrider in Cheipar recoiled instinctively, as if from a diving hawk.

The pod stopped gently, a hairsbreadth above the ground, and its skin peeled back, inviting the elves inside. 

* * *

They were lacing the food with something; Bluestar was sure of it. He’d felt oddly tingly and muddled ever since hunger had compelled him to eat the green mash. It reminded him of the euphoria of wackroot. He wondered why they bothered; with the rootlet in his ear and the walls closed to him, he couldn’t escape. But it seemed they wanted him numbed as well as bound. Another of Timmain’s dubious mercies.

How long had he and Naga been left in their green cell? Long enough for him to finish a bowl of the mash – Naga wouldn’t touch it – and relieve himself twice against the farthest wall – the Tree wall just soaked it all up leaving not so much as a trace of scent. “Better than the pit closets hey?” he’d chuckled, hoping to get any reaction out of his cellmate. But Naga had not moved from her fetal position on the bed of moss. Sometimes she whispered to herself, but the words made no sense to him. More worryingly, sometimes she hummed, or made clicks and whistles with her tongue. He couldn’t be certain, but it sounded like the insect-buzz of the Firstcomers.

After one particularly lengthy series of clicks and hums, it seemed her song had finally attracted someone’s attention. A doorway opened in the moss-covered wall. Bluestar got to his feet; he could still run, surely. But the fog from the mash and a sudden pulse of the root against his skull brought him back down to his knees. By the time he had regained control of his limbs, it was too late. 

“Still you fight the inevitable,” Timmain marvelled. 

Bluestar looked up at her. “Don’t – ngh – all living things?”

“You have learned your lessons well, child. What is existence, but a constant struggle against its opposite? That primal resistance to stillness is present in all living things. Even we, beings of reason who can truly understand the certainty of entropy, cannot help but attempt to defy it… as long as we can.

“There was a question I and my brethren asked ourselves often, in those first hard days on this two-mooned world. How shall I keep from singing? For there seemed no purpose in enduring the flesh, our limited, fragile shells, in this hostile world. Surely our brothers and sisters who had perished in the crash were better off, in the pure realm of the spirit. Yet we could not. Our most primitive instincts compelled us. I saw it in the dance between the hawk and hare, between the wolf and stag. As long as there is a chance of life, one must always fight for it.

“So I took my chance, and I shared it with my brethren. I taught them how to learn from the creatures of this world. I birthed creatures of this world, elves with the blood of Abode, with the birthright of this world. And though my brothers and sisters could not endure, their children did. Many were lost, some were sacrificed, but all in the service of the survival of our kind. And the strangled, feeble songs of my first children became the great howls of a healthy pack.

“But now the songs are failing again. Those who bear the wolfblood proudly are all but gone. Generations of elves have grown deaf to the worldsong. Our kind are dying, Bluestar. You cannot see it, because you are young. But Aurek saw. So does Haken, though he is too afraid to admit it.”

“The wolfbloods are dying,” Bluestar countered. “Everyone else is thriving!”

“Are they? The humans continue to spread across the globe, driven our kind further and further into the margins of life. In Oasis and Blue Mountain, they hide inside stone. In the Islands and Hearthstone, they surround themselves with water. The Sea Holt is forever in flight. The Great Holt is defended by a wall of jungle, and the spirits of their dead. Those who used to hunt and howl and live free are now caged, their songs stifled. And still the humans come. I do not blame them. How can I? This is their world. Those without the wolfblood can never claim Abode as their true home. 

“Haken understood. In some small way, he sensed that he did not belong here. Now he thinks he has found a proper home and has named it so. But Homestead is not his, anymore than Abode was. In time it will reject him as Abode did. As Abode will reject all foreign intrusions.

“The wolf with a splinter in his paw knows it must come out if he is to heal. We are a splinter in the body of this world, and the humans are going to drive us out.”

Bluestar shook his head. “We can share the world. We have the Pact. We have humans fighting even now to keep it strong.”

“Not enough of them. There will never be enough. For every human you can tame, or threaten, or simply batter into stillness, there will be eight-eights more who know – deep in their blood – that they are the rightful heirs of this world, and we are but invaders. I have seen it, in all the possible outcomes of the Multitude. Of all beings, none can match humans for their drive to endure, to multiply, to sing – to sing so loudly that all other creatures are deafened by the noise. It is their nature. It is neither good nor ill. It simply… is. 

“And what about our nature? You said you could not help but sing.”

“Yes. But our songs were not meant for this world. To thrive we had to adapt, to learn to match its melody.”

Bluestar nodded. “To take up the wolfblood. But the wolfblood is almost gone.” He looked up at the green walls of his cell. “So you’re trying something new.”

“The greensong,” Timmain said, in a voice full of love. “I confess, I found it overwhelming at first. Like the call of Recognition – unexpected and unwanted. But in the fullness of time and space, I reflected on its melody. I let my spirit wander through the Multitude, and I reflected on all that has been and all that may yet be. And I chose freely.”

She set a hand on the wall of the tree, and green light pulsed under her fingertips. “Sometimes one’s student can be one’s greatest teacher, and one’s child can be one’s greatest lover.”

Bluestar made a face. “Do you even hear yourself anymore?” When Timmain looked at him in bemusement, he continued: “‘You chose freely’ – the scat you did! You’ve gone muzzy-headed on the same mash you’ve been feeding me! The Tree got to you! Just like it got to Sunstill, and Pool, and Savah and everyone else too weak to tell it to go poke itself!”

Timmain’s face turned grave. “You are young. And we forgive you your harsh words. When you have joined my bond, you will regret your misjudgements.”

“I’ll never join your Green Way!”

“But you will. You are a perceptive soul. You will come to understand its wisdom. And more… you have the will of a Wolfrider, even if you lack its blood. You fight for any chance at life.”

“I’d rather die singing my own song than live forever singing yours.”

Timmain reached out a long arm towards him.  “We shall see.”

And then the pain began.

* * *

It was the screaming that brought Naga back to herself.

She clawed her way back to consciousness to find herself lying on the mossy floor of the Tree’s cell. Across from her, Bluestar writhed in torment, teeth bared, a thin whine whistling out between his clenched jaws. But he couldn’t stop the screaming of his mind.

“Stop it!” Naga struggled to her feet. She turned on Timmain, slapping and clawing at her bare flesh. “You’re killing him, stop it!”

Timmain’s turned and her hand locked tight about Naga’s throat. She held the smaller elf at arm’s length effortlessly. Naga coughed and continued to claw at the hand restraining her. But though her nails drew rivulets of blood, Timmain did not seem to feel the pain.

**You stop it, if you wish it so,** Timmain replied calmly.  

“Nngh, that’s what I’m trying to do!”

**You see barriers where there are none. We are one. The power to end this lies with us.  Accept that and you can end his torment. We can end his torment.**

Naga struggled to breathe around the hand on her windpipe. “Don’t – believe – you,”

**That is your choice.**

Naga dug her nails deep into Timmain’s flesh and send out a pain-sending directly into her nervous system. Timmain winced slightly, but her grip did not slacken. **A noble attempt. But you persist in focusing on the flesh.**

Naga extended her senses, addled as they felt under the oppressive magic of the Tree. She felt Timmain’s spirit just out of reach, a glowing aura that hummed so much like her own. 

No, she vowed. Whatever the High One’s game, she would not play it. 

She turned her thoughts instead to Bluestar, to try and locksend with him, to lift the psychic pain from him, or at least share in it. 

Timmain’s sending chased her. But it wasn’t only Timmain’s voice she heard. **Yess… it’s better this way. See the truth for yourself. Take up our burden, and feel the truth he cannot confront.**

And then she saw. And heard. And felt. 

Images assailed her. Barren landscapes stripped of all life, the very topsoil turned to dust and staining the air brown; sprawling, cancerous jungles of bricks and mortar, of steel and glowstone; mutated animals rotting in the empty fields alongside the broken bones of elves. Here a Palace-pod hovered over the ground, as elves struggled to climb aboard and humans shot at them with blast-powder projectiles. There a massive explosion, greater than any produced by crude mineral potions, scoured the landscape with all the power of a fallen star. 

Smells filled her sinuses: horrible stenches, every flavor of rot and ash. Screams and groans wove together into a hideous new form of music. She felt the decay deep within her own body, as if the plagues of a hundred ages were attacking her cells all at once. She was everywhere, feeling everything. She was the world itself, and she was being violated on every conceivable level. In the end, even the cities and monuments of the humans crumbled to dust, as the creatures that built them turned upon each other as if in some deep-seated self-loathing. The pain… the grief… and perhaps worst of all, the profound sense of hopelessness… it was enough to break any soul.

Cursing herself, she broke off the locksending with Bluestar, and left him alone. 

“Why?” she demanded. 

This time Timmain did not answer.

“Because they can,” announced the mossy figure that peeled itself off the wall. “Because it is the nature of all beasts to consume, to gorge and to overextend, to fend off their own inevitable annihilation through the sum of many other extinctions… and finally, when they can no longer deny their approaching end, to waste and to wound out of sheer rage. Because no living being on this world has learned this truth as fully as the humans, and because you all must understand – if we do not stand firm against this threat, we will be nothing but ashes and dust. Because there is only one choice that awaits us: the Green Way, or the slow torture of this world to nothingness.”

Naga looked over the tree-shape: tall and male and gowned in a robe of moss, as though he were a High One. 

“The same will happen to Homestead,” the Pool-shape continued relentlessly. “It may take longer, but the cycle will repeat itself. All beasts are alike. And your mother and grandfather are the closest to humans of all elves: grasping, selfish, spiteful, willing to burn their world rather than cede their dominion.”

“Aren’t you my grandfather?” Naga spat.

“No. Pool takes no credit for you. Once, he planted the seed than became your mother. But she banished him from both her past and future. It was better that way. He would grieve to think his blood runs in your veins. Pool died knowing he was the end of a great line, and now he will found a still greater one – one that will endure long after his former progeny drive themselves to self-slaughter.”

New images forced themselves past Naga’s defenses: a world draped in green from floor to canopy; a single forest stretching from coast to coast, from arctic circle to the frozen seas of the far south. No – a single Tree – one immense organism with countless trunks and branches, shading an entire continent under its starstone leaves, casting its seedpods of crystalline acorns to be carried on the wind, until a Tree bloomed on every patch of land, until all but the sheerest cliffs and most barren tundra remained gray. Now Naga saw as if from space, as if she were floating in a pod orbiting a planet once mottled in a thousand colors, now transformed into a glowing green marble.

The redrock continent of Hearthstone bloomed evergreen. The Painted Mountains of the New Land were lost under a uniform coat of emerald. Even the oceans had a turquoise tinge to them, as algal blooms colored the surface waters. Only the poles still gleamed white, and they had shrunk from the days of the old ice ages. 

There was no room in this new world for humans. Nor any other life the Tree could not use. 

Naga understood it all, as the images came flying at her, faster and faster. She caught glimpses of naked elves and trollkin toiling at great cauldrons of fermenting vegetable matter. She saw animals here and there, squirrels and treewees and great swarms of insects, but no predators larger than a weasel. She saw mushroom colonies greedily decomposing the dead flesh of the great beasts who had been judged too wasteful to be permitted to live. She felt the great currents of energy being steadily directed towards the ravenous roots of the Tree, to maintain the closed circle of life. 

“No waste,” the Pool-shape continued. “No cruelty. Only gentle growth and death without fear. Only the Tree and its Gardeners, and the great web of constant renewal.”

“So you’re no better than humans!” Naga sneered. “You take everything you want because you can, and you destroy everything you don’t like!”

“Self-preservation is the most deep-rooted of all impulses,” Timmain said. “There is no shame in–”

“We do not destroy!” the Pool-shape cut her off. “We are nothing like the beasts! We reshape, we transform! We improve! Even the humans, they will become part of us, if they can learn to sing the greensong. They will be elevated above the savagery of this world!”

This is savagery!” Naga shouted, stabbing a finger at the stricken Bluestar. “Look at him!” she shrieked, when the Pool-shape began to turn away. “Look what your greensong is doing to him!”

“Transformation is only violent if you try to fight it…” the Pool-shape murmured.

“I thought Pool was a healer!”

The bark skin of the tree-shape twitched about its mouth. “He was… the truest healer… one who used his magic to embrace life… not pervert it…”

“This is a perversion! All of this!

The Pool-shape raised its arm, and root-claws shot out from its fingers. They threw Naga back against the wall, and pinned her about the neck so she could not move. “Stop this, Timmain!” the shape hissed. “End this! We cannot hear. We cannot listen – we will not listen to this abomination!”

“Patience, my bond.”

“No! The sight of her sickens us. Her very existence is an affront to nature! Can you not understand?”

“This is about more than Pool–”

“She looks like her! She sounds like her!” The elf-shape looked back at the struggling girl. “Is this Melati’s work? Did she shape you thus? Did you? To torment us? To torment him! You have no soul of your own, and you have his eyes, but you wear her skin!”

“What – nngh – who are you talking about?”

 “Don’t you know? Don’t you see? Oh… this is final affront! Your cursed dam’s final revenge! After all these ages searching in vain, and she returns to me like this?! Her shell reborn and remade as the spawn of my great enemy?” 

The root-claws tightened about her throat. “Finish this, Timmain! Take what you must from her. Because we will not suffer this abomination to continue to draw breath!”


“Melati took her away from me! She can’t have her back now! It doesn’t work like that!

Timmain lashed out with a bolt of violet-tinged lightning. The shape cried out and the entire Tree shuddered as the bolt severed the shape’s arm. Naga gasped and tugged away the now-dead wooden twigs from around her throat.

“This cannot go on, Timmain,” the Pool-shape hissed. “You promised us… you promised Pool! The anomaly cannot remain!”

“She must surrender of her own choice,” Timmain insisted. “A willing sacrifice. The kind you made when you gave yourself to the Tree. You know that. The other lives within the Tree know that. The greensong cannot be forced upon anyone. They must choose to sing.”

“What do you call that?!” Naga demanded, pointing at Bluestar.

Timmain held up a hand and Bluestar’s psychic screams fell silent. He collapsed, limp upon the ground. “The choice is his. Accept the truth, or suffer in denial. But we speak of your choice.” She held out her hand. “You have seen what is coming, the two outcomes our world faces. Can you truly tell me you cannot see which is the better one?”

“This isn’t my world.”

“Your flesh was conceived here. Your spirit has dwelled here since the great stranding. You have sacrificed everything, again and again, to see your children flourish here.”

“I’m not you!”

“Are you so certain of that? Did you not wonder why you have always been so set apart from the others, even from your own parents? Did you not suspect there was more than simple jealousy that made your mother abandon you?”

“She didn’t–”

“She fears you. As she has always feared us. Her own peace-hounds turn on you –”

“How do you know about that?”

“Why do you think Haken banished you from Homestead? He sees the truth, even if he cannot quite believe it. He knows I will be always be watching him, always alert against any threat to our children.”

“You did this to me… you got into my mind – to spy on Haken!”

“There were holes in the great tapestry… anomalies in the Multitude. Now we have a chance to close those holes. To unite what has been shattered, to merge what was reflected.” She advanced on Naga. “I cannot compel you. I can only beg you: return to the source. Be the healer you were meant to be. Not merely of flesh, but of spirit. Of time. Of the Multitude itself. Rejoin me. Let us be one again. Share all you have learned, my young Glider self. Accept all your old Firstcomer self has to offer.”

Naga shook her head. 

“I cannot compel you,” Timmain repeated. “But I can complete the Tree without you. It will take longer. And it will be imperfect. If we remain fractured, so does the dream. The greensong will remain discordant…”

Bluestar began to scream again. He seized and thrashed on the ground. The flood of psychic horrors rushed at Naga, worse than ever: visions of pain and mutilations, of crooked growth and endless decay, a war fought between Tree and humans and elves with ever more deadly weapons, until the planet itself shattered under the weight of so much destruction.

“Will you let this pain endure?” Timmain’s voice came as if from a great distance.

“Make it stop!” Naga begged.

“Only you can do that.”

Bluestar’s screams became strangled as the seizures overtaking his body robbed him of breath.

**You can save him… you can save everyone…**

Naga closed her eyes and cowered against the mossy wall. The magic around her was filling the air with static. She could feel the hairs on her arms beginning to stand on end.

**Become Timmain again… and the power is yours…**

As if bound by the static, Naga felt her hand begin to rise… to reach out…

* * *

Smokewater had joined the elves at an impromptu war council inside the melded pod. Skywise conjured a flickering image of the Tree and its domed shield. “Does it reach underground?” Smokewater asked. 

Sylas made the image of the Tree rise in the air, and extended the image of the shield underneath into a perfect sphere. “It would seem Timmain has learned the lessons of Howling Rock,” Haken said. “There’ll be no troll tunnels this time.”

“We know you can’t beat it down with magic,” Smokewater said. “But what about blast-rock?”

“Unlikely,” Sylas ruled. “Unless you have enough to destabilize the entire bedrock?”

“Give me enough time, butterfly, I can blast all the way to the New Land.”

“Time is one thing we don’t have,” Swift said. “Blast-rock might catch Timmain off-guard. For a moment. She isn’t used to the Troll Way. But she’ll adapt, and quickly.”

“So we need to distract her,” Skywise said. “Keep her off-balance, keep her from thinking clearly. We’ve seen it happen before. Something gets in her head and she freezes up.”

“Has she ever tasted your bite before, pup?” Haken asked Tass.

“Never had to. But I can’t ‘bite’ her through that shield. So, we’re back where we started.”

“How to collapse the shield… or entice her out of it.”

 “What can we tempt her with?” Weatherbird asked. “What do we have that she wants? Not Haken – she had plenty of chances to swat us out of the sky back there, and instead she ignored us.”

“Me?” Beast offered. “If it’s the starstone blood she wants…”

“She already has Naga,” Haken dismissed.

“But I-I’m the first. I killed Kahvi. I… as-simi-la-ted the starstone,” his nervous stammer returned as he struggled with the word. “Naga w-was already born with it.”

“Pool wanted you put down from the moment he saw you,” Melati mused. “I could see it in his eyes. The only thing that would please him more than tormenting my child is destroying my lifemate.”

“I c-could be bait,” Beast insisted. “Like counting taal. I’m good at that.”

Melati shook her head. “This isn’t taal. If Timmain gets a hold of you – if Pool –”

“She’d have to drop the shield to get me.”

“We could give you a blast-bottle,” Smokewater suggested. “About this big,” he held his hand up to demonstrate. “You pop the cap and count to five. Then big boom and a roaring fire. You can drop it and run, or throw it if that claw-arm of yours is as strong as it looks.”

“Wait–” Swift began, but Beast wasn’t in the mood to listen.

“Good for throwing. Better for killing. They’ll want to take me. I know they will. And maybe… maybe if they have me, they’ll let her go.”

“Just wait–”

“Are you certain, child?” Haken asked. “Once you’re inside that shield… you may not return.”

“If it gets us Naga back, it will be worth it.”

Mel shook her head. “No. No, you can’t. I won’t let you.”

“For our daughter, Mel! For Naga! Wouldn’t you do anything for her?”

“I’m not choosing between the two of you!”

“It’s not your choice, it’s mine.”

“No! There must be another way!”

Rrraggh – I said wait!” Swift bellowed, showing her teeth. “All of you! Just – wait!

Haken wrinkled his nose. “Did you just bark at us?”

Swift held out her hands to forestall further arguments. “We bring down the shield. We bring everything we have against Timmain. Tass – Mel – the High Ones – the starstone – we might – might have enough to stop her. But what about the Tree?”

“She’s right,” Tass said. “We’re putting the cart before the zwoot. It was the Tree that turned Timmain.”

Haken rolled his eyes. “I’m still not so sure about that.”

 “Blow it up, burn it, bury it, throw it into the sun,” Smokewater shrugged. “What does it matter, as long as it dies.”

“Because it’s not the green growing stuff that’s the problem,” Tass said. “And the spirits inside won’t die. Not even inside the sun itself.”

“We need to have shackles ready for them as well,” Haken realized. 

“Not all the spirits are there willingly,” Weatherbird said. “And some have not been corrupted long. They could be healed by the Palace. Or simply by time’s passage.”

“And the others?” Swift asked.

“What about Pool?” Melati insisted.

**I may have the solution.**

The open sending echoed in the room, magnified and clarified by the starstone, until it sounded as if the elf himself were standing among them. While Smokewater’s brow furrowed in confusion, the others’ faces bore expressions of joyous surprise and recognition.

“Aurek!” Skywise cried. Weatherbird clapped her hands and laughed aloud..

**Forgive me my tardiness. I came as soon as I could. But I’ve been in touch with a mutual friend, and I believe we have a viable plan of attack.**

The air around them seemed to pop as a third vessel of starstone suddenly materialized against the combined pod. Smokewater swore loudly as the walls closest to him melted away, revealing the party of elves from the College.

**Ah, we’re all here! Now we can begin.**

Elfquest copyright 2019 Warp Graphics, Inc. Elfquest, its logos, characters, situations, all related indicia, and their distinctive likenesses are trademarks of Warp Graphics, Inc. All rights reserved. Some dialogue taken from Elfquest comics. All such dialogue copyright 2019 Warp Graphics, Inc. All rights reserved. Alternaverse characters and insanity copyright 2019 Jane Senese and Erin Roberts.