Time watched a dust storm approaching fast. At her side, Wolf whined, and she stroked his moss-green fur to calm her own worries as much as his.
The rest of the pack darted for cover, their movements blurs of sage and evergreen. Younger packmates reshaped their inner light into different forms, including wolves, but also hare and elk and coyote. Age brought attachment, a fear of change—a rigidity. Time wore the strangest form of all: two-legged, covered by a gown of pale lichen, a leafy mane falling midway down her back. It was a form that had once belonged to the Shapers alone. Wolf complained at her choice, though he curled into Time’s side readily enough each eve to warm her almost furless hide.
The sky darkened. The pack’s territory was no longer blessed by the light of the Shapers, the winds death-still. Dust fell from leaden clouds overhead and collected atop the plains. The hoary flakes smoldered near flats of obsidian rock bed. Fragile switchglass—with its crystal-like leaves—grew between the cracks. As dust accumulated to a thick powder, the land turned the color of aged muzzles, the ground opaque and ugly.
“It’s useless,” Time said to Wolf. “We’ll never finish the wind-maker.”
“Don’t say that,” Wolf said, his voice husky. “Your design can be replicated, used to stir the winds and open the Light Gate. The Shapers’ light will return. We’ll survive this lean season, same as others.”
Time stood still. She knew Wolf spoke in dreams rather than full truths. He didn’t smell the wounds she carried. Time dwelled on the pack’s losses, and the transience from green to gray across the land. She prided herself on her mind, her focus, but lately the collecting dust felt suffocating, desolation piling like leaf litter and unanswered questions.
The pack’s dependence on the Shapers had made them weak. There was too much the pack had never been told or taught. The dust storms were worse and worse. The Shapers had kept the dust from accumulating, but they’d left, abandoning this world to a never-ending season of neglect.
Time’s back ached, strained from gathering metals and broken glass to be ready before the storm hit. Dust flurried. It stung her eyes and scratched her ever-dry throat.
Wolf dug through a pile of hard-found supplies taken from the mountains’ feet and the plains beyond, then picked up a piece of copper in his jaw.
Watching him, Time wiped a film of dust from her eyes. Her sight didn’t thank her, only picking up more grit. Time thought of better days, of racing after Wolf, of clean air and laughter and unappreciated sunshine. She didn’t run anymore. With the horrid dust in her lungs, polluting her light, she’d wilted.
Time coughed and surveyed her work area. It was a mess, exposed, set on the eastern side of the dust-covered steppes where the Light Gate stood like a dead thing. It was an entrance to the river of light, its currents unknown.
The gate was ancient. It had been built by the Shapers, made of metal and glass, as forbidding as the dusk and ungiving as winter.
Around it, there were piles of sorted copper, zinc, and tin. There were sheets of broken glass and a jar of clear flux, mixed by her own hand, used to clean the metal before soldering it. The building materials of the Shapers. Time dared to build as they had, so the pack avoided her, their gazes splintered with distrust.
All but Wolf.
Something poked her shoulder. She glanced over. Wolf had jabbed her with the copper gripped in his muzzle. His fur was bright green, the ends sparkling like dew on fern leaves. She took the metal from him and debated on its placement, trying one spot, then another. Her dull, tired fingers worked the copper around the edges of a large glass shard. It stood on its side, propped with a bit of spare metalwork next to the wind-maker’s frame, angled to catch the sun. She had constructed it near the Light Gate so the wind it made could unlock the currents the Shapers had left before they closed the way behind them.
“No more copper,” Time said before Wolf grabbed another piece between his sharp teeth. “We have enough to solder the blades and the tail. After, we’ll attach the base.” She coughed again.
“You’ll finish it,” Wolf said, his voice forced brightness, his tail wagging. “I know you will.”
Time looked at the Light Gate and imagined all the answers it might provide, once opened. She tried to be like Wolf. She tried to hope.
Three days later, the storm ruled, and dust piled higher. It wasn’t an optimal condition for work, but Time wouldn’t risk waiting. The rest of their packmates hid in what cover they could find, braving the open at midday to hunt light while Time continued the work.
Youths had started wearing the forms of nomadic grazers. Cattle and horse and caribou—with muzzles, strong hooves, horns, and thick fur—better to trek through the banks of unstable, layered dust. To graze the muted switchglass struggling to grow despite it.
A scatter of hoofprints circled the supply piles. Scavengers had approached the Light Gate itself, touching its dusty edges with paw and snout.
The sun was shrouded by a thick gray veil. Time finished the placements and started soldering. The metals were bonding well. Wolf kept close to her elbow, wiping dust away with a flux-covered paw. Time held her soldering iron with expertise.
The next glass shard was in easy reach, resting atop the wind-maker’s frame. As she adjusted the next joint, she foolishly leaned too far. Her knees pressed against the loose piece. The glass wavered, then tipped downward.
“Wolf, grab it quick!”
He snapped at it, his teeth grazing the too-smooth surface, but the piece fell, its weight carrying it down. It shattered, the pieces ricocheting against the wind-maker’s skeleton.
Time eyed her supply pile, but the remaining glass shards she’d gathered with Wolf were needed as suncatchers to power the wind-maker. How could she have been so stupid? She squeezed her eyes shut.
“I’ll go,” Wolf said, stretching his front legs. “There’s some to the north, I think, where we’ve hunted before.” She opened her mouth, about to tell him she would go too, but then he growled softly. “You stay,” he said. “Save your strength.”
She almost argued, but the words forming on her tongue belonged to a Shaper, arrogant, dipped in greater knowledge—or the appearance of it.
Looking down, Time sighed. “I’ll clean up this mess.”
When Wolf returned, he dragged a heavy glass shard as perfect as the first, but it had claimed something in return. He shook his fur, which had lost its shine, and she could make out light-seeping cuts upon his paws. He panted, his tongue hanging out of his mouth. She thanked the Shapers’ light he wasn’t hurt worse, but her eyes watered when she heard him muffle a cough, pressing his muzzle into his fur-clad chest.
What would she do without him, if he faded, lacking the strength to continue?
Time jerked a hand through her leafy hair and cleared her throat. She rearranged her collection of metals. “Let’s get back to work.”
With the second attempt, she didn’t rush. She built extra supports for the wind-maker, then Wolf helped her lift the replacement shard into place. He braced it while she soldered the glass to the frame before attaching the blades and the tail. When Time was certain nothing would fall off or shatter, she squared her shoulders and joined the final seams with solder.
They set up their array of suncatchers next.
The angles of their light brightened a patch of tall switchglass despite its buried roots, returning treasured hues of olive and sage. Time tried not to cough as she directed Wolf, whose deft paws tilted each glass piece a different angle to best capture the sunlight. When they had finished, Time and Wolf pushed the wind-maker onto four silver feet.
“Turn it, a hair more to the left,” Time said, motioning impatiently, eager. She had started to let herself hope this might work. “Be careful. It’s not quite level, and if it falls—” She swallowed. “We’ll adjust the suncatchers as needed afterward.”
Wolf groaned, his back taut, his strong jaw clamped over metal and glass in an awkward bite. He tugged hard, his claws cutting lines into the dust beneath him. The wind-maker’s base creaked as it pivoted. Wolf tended the suncatchers again, nudging them with his nose while Time wheezed into the inside of her elbow.
She steadied herself against the wind-maker. Its metal had a mirror-like quality, capturing her dull likeness. In memory, her complexion was bright, as vivid as new spring stems.
Time shook her hair back. It rustled dryly to her ankles. “I look awful.”
Wolf nuzzled her knees. Once, he’d have agreed with her, and tried to persuade her to try another form. “The wind-maker will work,” he said instead.
Time eyed Wolf, long-limbed, his ears cupped in her direction, and fur still dappled by light despite his developing cough. Sometimes, she wondered at his forbearance, at his willingness to aid her. Wolf had stopped hunting with the pack because of her. He said it was his choice, the same as hers to wear the form of a Shaper. Even now, he offered her a toothy smile.
She doubted him. What did he see in her? A faded thing. A memory of light, her remaining days as fragile and thin as withering switchglass. Time dipped her chin.
“Look!” Wolf said, his ears swiveling toward the wind-maker’s blades. His light flared moss-bright within his fur. “It’s working.”
Time watched the wind-maker. The suncatchers fed it steady light, and the blades turned, slowly at first but then faster. The wind stirred, waking seeded secrets, finishing the sequence implemented in all Shaper builds.
The Light Gate glowed, faint at first, widening, flickering; the blink of a great yellow eye. Its opening revealed the river of light: its flow the radiance of the dawn, the warmth of high summer. Its brilliance glinted off the wind-maker. Dust sparkled.
Time stepped closer to the Light Gate, enchanted by its gilded beauty, its bright currents.
Too late, she realized its danger. Her thoughts shifted from a soft glow of wonder to a searing fear of something powerful and unknowable.
The Light Gate seemed to breathe in, hot, arid, tasting of burning hair. Her inner light crackled from between her lips, her skin. She struggled to step back even as the river of light pulled her in. A withered leaf plucked from the stem, falling.
“Wolf!” Time cried.
She thought she heard him howl back.
Was this death, then? Time panicked. She wasn’t ready to die. She wanted to feel the sun’s true warmth, and to run fast beside Wolf once more. She wasn’t ready. She wasn’t finished with her work yet.
The sky disappeared. In its place there was the too-bright light of the river. Wings flapped high above. She heard them above the gold-flecked river. As unformed as mist, barely outlined, with lace-like plumes. Feathers grazed Time’s right cheek, then flapped away.
The air cooled, misty and salt-licked, and the sky returned.
It was the wrong color.
“Emit, is that you? Emit?”
Time stirred. A light hovered near her. Blurry-eyed, she couldn’t make out the familiar shape of Wolf. Time blinked, then blinked again. There were no greens to comfort her, nor grays to worry over.
“Everything’s the wrong color,” Time mumbled, rubbing her eyes. As she took a breath, she realized her throat was clear, the air refreshed, the sky dust-free. She stood quickly. A swelling, rippling sea surged at her feet. Edges of metal and glass rose from the water. The shapes weren’t natural, but sculpted. It couldn’t be, but it had to be: the Light Gate.
It was in ruin, half-claimed by deep waters.
Time bit her bottom lip to stop from crying out in defeat. She remembered the wind-maker clearly, and the burning air as she fell into the river of light. But the pain had washed away. This didn’t feel like death. There was too much fear in her heart for this to be the end.
Time was uncertain of all but Wolf’s loss at her side, the realization worse than any number of dust storms. The wind-maker had been intended to coax the winds back, to open the Light Gate and return the light of the Shapers to the pack’s territory, and maybe, hope against hope, to clear the dust storms for good.
Opening the Light Gate hadn’t been meant to send her elsewhere, far from Wolf, their pack, their shared joys and despairs.
Something rubbery pecked at her fingertips.
“Emit?” the same stranger’s voice asked, calling her that backward name again. “Why did you change your light into these?”
Time sat up and looked at her palms, trying to center herself by focusing on something familiar in a world reshaped. “I—my name is Time. I prefer having hands so I can build things.”
As she spoke, Time looked up and met two jewel-like eyes, their brilliant and unexpected shade reminding her she wasn’t alone. This wasn’t a Shaper, but not a packmate either. “Who are you?” she asked.
“What a funny joke,” the stranger with beautiful eyes said, a playfulness in his tone. “I am Flow, of course.” His chosen form was a dolphin. A streamlined body with a round head and a tall dorsal fin.
Flow blew water from his blowhole, then broke into song:
Mountains gleam silver,
the sky drips of gold honey,
but none are my blue.
Time looked at his flippers and tilted her head. Flow opened his beak wider, smiling brightly, though imperfectly—crookedly. Wolf smiled like that. Time was heartened by the echoed expression of it. Flow turned and splashed her with his tail fluke. He flickered into the form of a bright-scaled fish, then back to a dolphin.
“Come on, Emit. Let’s test out this ugly new form of yours. Race you to the next wave! Loser eats a mouthful of bubbles.”
Time pushed aside thoughts of Wolf, burying the guilt and the panic, centering herself in the calm of analyzing a problem. A cold focus that pushed away emotion. Like a dream, this place felt unreal, and perhaps that made its unusualness less frightening.
What had happened? The logical part of her said she’d done as she’d meant: opening the Light Gate, but then she’d fallen into the river of light, its currents bringing her into unknown territory. A journey which in theory, she might reverse.
But who was Emit? Why wasn’t Flow’s friend on this side of the gate? A mystery with complexities that forced Time to realize the truth: she was no Shaper. The cracks in her focus splintered, and despair sent a chill down her spine.
She was nothing.
No better than a speck of dust for all her grasping to be more.
Time wanted desperately to run, to put as much distance between herself and her failings as possible. She sprang forward, her light-filled feet keeping atop the water’s surface. It felt like she was in control as she tried to escape.
And she had not run in a very long time.
The urge to flee took over reason and purpose, primal and wild.
Time wasn’t sure where she had come to, but the sea was beautiful, full of happier memories than the pack’s dusty plains. Its waves were untiring and graceful, and the winds overhead didn’t sputter or sigh. If Wolf were beside her, she thought, all would be well.
And there it was: the heartache. The despair. The emptiness that could not be filled, nor outrun no matter how light-strong she might have become.
Time followed closely behind Flow’s tail fluke. Like Wolf, he was faster than her. If he got too far ahead, she’d have no one.
She’d be completely, totally alone.
“Slow down,” she cried out, though when she tried harder, her light-strong legs moved atop the seawater almost as swiftly as his fins within it. “Please. Where are we going?”
Flow slowed, letting her draw abreast to his dorsal fin. He splashed her with a wave. “To the Crack, Emit. Where else?”
As they traveled, Flow sang to her of blue things. There were sapphires, asters, indigo dye, and blueberries. There were morpho butterflies, jays, and bluebells. Time could not keep track of them all, nor did she want to, for it was only a reminder of how little she understood.
“So many,” Time said in bitterness, her breaths deep, her calves burning. “I’ve never heard of some.”
Flow laughed, the sound a bubbling spring, his smile open and sweet. “I love to play games with you.”
“You talk like we’re old friends.”
He looked over at her with a hurt expression. “Aren’t we?”
Time swallowed back frustration, though she longed to tell him he knew nothing of her: that he was too carefree, that Emit was gone, lost. He should be worried.
But if she told him that, wouldn’t she only offer him pain? Perhaps it was better to be ignorant. To be unaware.
She caught her reflection in the water. Her long hair parted to the opposite side from her usual style. Still, she looked like herself, only mirrored. And she brimmed with light. Her skin reflected the sea’s brilliant blue.
She remembered a winged form in the passage of the Light Gate, bringing a frown to her lips. Had it been a Shaper she’d seen? Was Emit one? Perhaps if she could find a Shaper, this mess would have a solution.
Looking around, Time hunted for signs of the Shapers. She had questions, and there were answers to be found in this place, surely.
They reached what Flow called the Crack.
Time’s feet splashed to a halt. She almost wept, for the sea had been parted like an unhealed wound, and the water fell into its trap. A waterfall carried the sea down and away. Had this place been broken by the Shapers’ absence too?
Strangers wearing forms of tarpon and sailfish and gannets had gathered around it, playing within the frothy waters, jumping and flying along its girth. These kin of Flow’s weren’t Shapers.
The sea floor looked the same dark shade of obsidian as the plains of her home, where the pack’s territory stretched. Strong rock, not easily injured. One hand kept flying strands of hair out of Time’s mouth. It was no longer green or leafy. It streamed across her face, its roots damp.
She stepped forward. “I could fix this. The two halves can be brought together and sealed. I’d need materials, metal to solder together, but then the water wouldn’t run off like this.”
Flow snorted. “Water is not meant to stay in one place. It would feel trapped if it did.”
“I—” Time didn’t understand. Wouldn’t the sea drain away, eventually? Flow seemed untroubled.
Time exhaled. The Shapers weren’t here, their scent trail nonexistent. She pictured her wind-maker. It had proven itself as dangerous as her own curiosity. Should she leave things be for once, for fear of making them worse? Maybe Wolf was glad she wasn’t around anymore, making messes. Breaking things. Maybe he had rejoined their pack with glee. Her shoulders dipped.
“You’ve never been a worrier, Emit,” Flow said. “Nothing is whole in this world. Life needs a flaw or two.”
“I see,” she said, but she didn’t.
They slept apart. Time curled up on the shore, while Flow floated in gentle waves. The quiet and the doubts that grew stronger in the dark made her heartsick for Wolf unbearable. She tossed and turned, fighting off nightmares. When Time woke, there was a horrible storm raging overhead. Dust flakes sunk into the sea’s waters, polluting it.
“No, no,” Time cried, trying to scoop bits out with her hands. “Not here too.”
A gentle fin touched her left ankle. “What’s wrong, Emit?”
Time pointed to the troubled sky. “A storm’s here. The dust is already falling.”
Flow whistled, then exhaled through his blowhole. “The dust will wash away, as it always does.” He swam, circling her. “The Crack will filter it, for the sea carries such impurities there.”
“But, the dust…” Time considered trying to explain it all. To convince him she wasn’t Emit. To tell Flow of the river of light, her anger at the Shapers. Her fear of never seeing Wolf again. Her hope that she could build as well as the Shapers. Of Wolf and his moss-green fur and the switchglass of the plains.
Maybe the answer was admitting she didn’t know what it all meant. That this world was flawed and always would bear the scars of what had come before. She had dabbled in a power she didn’t understand, and she’d taken Emit from Flow without even knowing she had the power to do so. There could be no other explanation than that Emit’s disappearance correlated with Time’s appearance.
The Shapers had left great hardship in their absence. Maybe it was unfair to think they were meant to be perfect, unflawed. Their kind had never held all the answers, and the pack was no different.
Time had thought she could give the world a form she’d shaped—that followed her own rules. She’d lost something of herself by trying to control so much. There was focus in her, and discipline, but she’d lost a spark for life itself, always trying to go back to a season that no longer existed.
Time shook her head. “The Crack isn’t a flaw, is it?”
Flow laughed. “You finally see!”
She looked at Flow but only saw Wolf before her, his ears drooped, his light almost spent.
“Shapers guide me,” Time said. “There’s something I must build, and I’ll need your help.”
They traveled fast, catching the sun at the Crack. Time tried to explained as best she could about the plains, Wolf, that she knew the chosen form of Emit was a winged one. Flow played along, thinking it all a great game.
Time searched for materials, sometimes catching sight of Flow leaping clear from the water, then flying as a seagull. She noted how the dirty water collected and spilled over the waterfall.
Time dove below the sea’s surface and found two treasures. The first was a smooth piece of shell-like glass, quite elegant, slightly dished from the water’s touch. The second piece was jagged and sharp.
At her request, they traveled west next, approaching familiar silver peaks which tilted the wrong direction. More and more, this world seemed a reflection of her own. Wolf and Flow, so similar, yet different. Time and Emit, two halves of an unseeable whole.
Did the river of light connect them all, a path between worlds built by the Shapers’ hands?
Her mind was lost in a puzzle she’d never solve, and it was easiest to tackle the hardest questions. It pushed aside doubts and confusion. She prioritized thought over heart. Questions consumed her. If there was a Crack in the sea, what was its sibling on the plains? Why was the Light Gate whole in her land, but in ruin within the sea?
Busy hands kept away the loss of Wolf. She used the jagged glass to free zinc, lead, and copper and took her findings to the site of the drowned Light Gate, and began to build a mirror, for she needed a way to reshape what had been worn away.
She needed to remind the gate of its unbroken form by bringing together its pieces, bathed in light. Then she had to convince it to open. She’d used wind to wake the first Light Gate, but should she trust her instincts and try water here instead?
At first, she tried to replicate old techniques, but the bowl-shaped glass was not like her wind-maker’s design, nor did she have so skilled a helper as Wolf at her side. The materials wouldn’t cooperate without proper tools either. Instead, Time let the glass keep its curved shape and added a thin splinter of the old Light Gate as a stem below it. Flow enjoyed the novelty of it all. He helped her as he could, changing to a pelican, scooping up mouthfuls of saltwater to empty into the basin-like shell.
When the mirror was done, it caught the sunset’s rays, dazzling Time’s eyes.
Time peeked into that brilliance and saw a glint of green, then gray. It showed her what she sought: a likeness of her truest self, and behind it, dust-smothered plains, more dust falling still. She felt the mirror’s edges in her hand’s grip, and looked deeply, hungrily. The plains of home spread out before her in the water’s reflection. She could see them, hear them.
Wind whistled through switchglass, making it chime. There were scents of fur and dusty sunlight. The wind-maker still spun, and the suncatchers remained in place, their bright rays spotlighting the metal framework. The Light Gate was open, a stream like a vein of gold flowing out, finding a path through rocks, the plains, renewing the land with the Shapers’ light. The ground was covered in broken shards, and Wolf was curled up among them, his tail wrapped over his light-bleeding paws. His muzzle had burn marks.
He looked dim. But he wasn’t alone.
Another form circled in the air, the outline of wings forming a bruised shadow below. Time had never seen a form that didn’t shine. All but invisible, Emit’s light held the barest suggestion of form. She twirled, then swooped. Her wings created wind of their own. Though she didn’t glow, nor flare, she was faster, fiercer, than anyone Time had ever met.
But light was nothing without control.
Emit flew erratically. She circled over and over in the air. Wolf observed from the ground and whined softly.
In defeat, Emit landed near him, the weak outline of her head tilted to the side as though she listened closely, his breathing guiding her. Her eyes were opaque and clouded, as though they’d been burned away from within. She folded her beautiful, hazy wings against her sides. “Are you toying with me,” she asked, angry, “saying the gate is one direction when it’s really another?”
Wolf growled. “Keep back.”
“You’re all bite, no bark,” Emit said, her voice yet a raging storm.
“I told you where to fly,” Wolf said. “I didn’t lie. It’s you who can’t find the way.”
“All I see are shadows and the faintest of shades,” Emit said. “This strange place—I can’t navigate it. And you—you’re no better, bleeding light as you are, with that tail held between your legs.”
“I’m waiting for Time,” Wolf said, a cough following his words, before his lips peeled back again to show his teeth.
Glints of long plumes shone as Emit shifted closer. “I didn’t choose to come here. These gates were meant to die. Rusted traps left by the Shapers to catch us in their ugly teeth.”
Wolf’s growl turned into a snarl. “The Shapers did not set traps.”
“They were hunters, same as you,” Emit said.
“Time doesn’t think so,” Wolf said, lowering his hackles, smiling crookedly. “You’ll see. She’ll find them, before she returns.”
“You remind me of someone, under your fangs,” Emit said, doubt edging her voice. “He’s probably having too much fun to even notice I’m gone.”
Wolf wagged his tail, weakly. “Trust me, no one could ever forget you.”
Time stepped back from the mirror and wiped wet eyes. The sky wasn’t at full light. She shouldn’t lean too close or look too deeply into the mirror’s center until all was ready.
Wolf was waiting for her, but if Time left now, Emit wouldn’t find her way back. She hadn’t asked to be torn from her blue world.
Emit needed a glimpse of something blue, a beacon, to guide her flight home. Time turned her back on the mirror and stepped back into the sea.
Yawning, his beak held comically wide, Flow swam around Time in gentle circles. He flattened his light into triangular pectoral fins, becoming a sleek and graceful manta ray.
“When I look into the mirror again,” Time said, “I may not be as I have been of late. I may change.”
Flow flicked water at her with his tail when he saw her frown. “I can’t get used to that form on you anyway.”
“You’re one to talk,” Time said. “I’ve never known another to change forms so often as you.”
He laughed. “Everyone seems so set on picking a specific one. I can’t understand it.”
Time dipped below the surface and found a round blue rock the same shade as Flow’s jeweled eyes.
Flow slept. Time drifted away in the night, then raced back to her mirror, her heels kicking up water. She hoped to catch the dawn in its basin without Flow’s company, for she didn’t want to risk him following her.
Time reached her mirror at the site of the Light Gate’s ruin. Taking her blue rock, holding it tight, she put her hands over the mirror’s rim. She looked into its calm surface where she saw the opposite bank.
“Emit,” Time said, her voice rippling the pooled water, “I’m going to try sending you some blue to guide your flight home.”
Time dropped the blue rock into the mirror’s waters and hoped this gate she’d built would do as planned, creating a ford between both worlds. Holding her breath, she watched the rock skip across the surface of the river of light, carrying the color of the sea to the plains.
It had worked.
She heard a flap of wings. Before fear overtook or reason out-won against what her heart was telling her, Time plunged her face into the mirror’s cool waters and fell into the river of light.
The air burned, bright as fire. It stole the light from Time’s lips, her hands, her very breath.
Twice as painful as the first time.
She could feel it tearing at her inner light, hungry for it, unmaking her form.
Above, Emit flew, given away by beating wings and the glint of light off her delicate outline.
Time let the currents take her, surrendering to their pull, her world searing, a storm of blinding light. She closed her eyes. One fading leaf floating atop the river of light.
Switchglass chimed, softly. There were scents of musk, of mud, of heated rock. Time opened her eyes to familiar green eyes and a burned muzzle. A wolfish grin, just a tad crooked. His breath was uneven, labored.
“I thought I’d lost you, Time.”
“There’s still a bit of me left,” Time said, her voice weak, raspy. Her hands were cold and numb. Escaped light dissipated into tiny white flames dying around her.
She was a stem with no leaves left to pull free. She looked at Wolf at her side, and yet so far away, drifting further with each shattered breath she gulped down. Long ago, she’d tried other forms, but never that of a wolf. And why not? She’d worn so many others, when she hadn’t let the fear of change ripen within.
What she had done once, she could do again.
Slowly, she reached for her inner light, unraveling her already damaged form, matching her breaths to Wolf’s.
He crawled closer, his ears flattened against his head, his cracked skin bleeding thin trails of light.
“The pack needs to learn how to tend the wind-maker,” Time said. “Its blades will blow the dust through the Light Gate. There is a blue sea on the other side. It will filter it. The glass plains will be wiped green once more. The pack will hunt together again. All will be as it was.”
“Why are you telling me all this?” Wolf said, fear a wet rasp in his throat. “Without you, it can never be as it was.”
The dawn broke free of the gray clouds. The sun’s brightness poured in, bringing hues of green together. The sunlight glistened against the metal of the wind-maker, the profile of the Light Gate.
Time felt her form fall apart. She let it. Her light flowed out in a new current, molding to another shape, falling beneath moss-green fur. It refilled what had seeped from cuts like dripping sap. She knew now what she had always known: their bond was a strength that shone through all other light. More than anything, she wanted Wolf to run across plains once more, through fields of shining switchglass.
She thought of Emit, flying overhead, her inner light bright and true.
Wolf’s breaths steadied.
She blinked and looked at the world through Wolf’s eyes. The plains rose before her, their collected dust, and the silvery mountains she knew and loved. She felt the air stir against her fur, felt the happiness of her wagging tail, heard herself pant.
I’m here, with you, Time thought to Wolf. Our light is joined, the dust we’d breathed in shed like an undercoat. Let’s make brighter days than these. Promise me.
Wolf howled. His paws were whole again, the inner light within renewing what had wilted. He pounced forward with his snout pointed the direction of their favorite meadow. His joy was hers. Her days were his. They ran together, as one. Her love for him an eternal memory of light, undimmed.