whisper to guess that Lord Gilbert, tired of the chase, must have activated the rest of the hunters and was sending them all after Oliver and the kite. The power drain on the oaks was enormous, and now even this world, the strongest and most vital of all the worlds Oliver had visited, was dying.

He took his trembling kite and fastened it to his pack. Into the pack went the riven oak branch, too. And then he dropped swiftly, skipping from branch to branch as he’d seen Ilia do, until he landed on the ground with a thump.




Hunters, Oliver thought, at the same moment he was diving into the carpet of dead leaves on the forest floor. He wriggled as deep as he could. Six flashes—they were hunting him in sixes now. Six times as dangerous, then.

He waited for hours, breathing in the rich, damp scent of the leaves and listening to the shrieks of the hunters as they searched the mountain. At last there came another FLASH, and then several more, and then no more flashes and no more shrieks. He’d fooled them, but probably not for long.

Oliver crawled from the leaves and ran for the riven oak. He had a plan but didn’t have much time before nightfall.

When they reached the oak, Oliver collected as many twigs as he could, pulling them from the ends of hanging branches and stuffing them into his pack. He thought apologies toward the riven oak as the green pieces ripped away.

Dusk was falling as Oliver hurried back to the crest. The twilight winds carried along with them a mountain’s worth of dead leaves. As he ran, Oliver felt part of the great whirring, rattling cloud. He almost floated onto the crest, half carried by the winds, holding the kite close.

Oliver looked at Great-uncle Gilbert’s handvane. It pointed confidently west

“West, it is,” said Oliver.

He held the kite high. “We have to keep flying west,” he said. “Do you understand?”

The kite fluttered, weakly.

Oliver hoped that the bits of the riven oak he’d collected would give the kite the energy to find the way.

The night winds struck, and the kite and Oliver were snatched from the crest.

As they flew through the mist, Oliver imagined he could feel strength flowing from the oak branches in his pack, through his body, and up to the kite, and tried to add to it whatever energy he could.

Carried along by the smooth winds, Oliver dozed off. He woke abruptly when he realized they were descending.

He could hear the kite’s sails whirring. The descent was alarmingly fast, and the kite seemed to be struggling to hold them both aloft. When they plunged out of the mist, there were hardly any winds to hold them.

The rough landing sent Oliver tumbling. He rolled professionally, noting that the ground in this world seemed, painfully, to be nothing but hard-packed sand and rock.

He stood up wearily in the semi-darkness. The winds were indeed light, more like night breezes. He could stand on the peak without any effort. He checked the sky and was relieved to see both moons. On the horizon, dawn was beginning to break.

Oliver gasped. The horizon! He had seen the black wires, he’d seen the riven oak, he’d seen the Crest Wall, he’d seen a monster, and he’d seen an entire mountain lose its leaves all at once. But never had he seen anything as awful as he did at that moment.

You did not see actual sunrises in Windblowne. The tall oaks blocked that view in all directions, even on the peak. And so Oliver saw something new—a bump of light becoming a brilliant disc from which he had to look away. An impossibly vast landscape spread out around him, all the way from one side of the world to the other, and all of it was rock and sand, a lifeless desert painted in shades of brown and white. The mountain was rocky and desolate too, and seeing it stretch down on all sides was dizzying. He thought of stories he had heard about sailors in a stormy sea, their ship perched on top of a wave down which they were about to plunge, to be smashed into the ocean. Oliver was struck with that same sense of vertigo, as though he might fall down this mountain and keep falling all the way to the end of the world.

He blinked. The light wind was carrying sand everywhere. Far away, hundreds of miles away over the flat and endless plains, he could see swirling columns of sand moving regally across the distances, carried by the wind. In between them were rock formations as large as cities, with flat tops that looked as though they could hold a dozen crests. In all this overwhelming emptiness, Oliver saw no signs of life.

But as the blazing sun rose, Oliver realized that there was life on the mountain. Starting where the oakline should be were small, twisted things. Fighting vertigo, Oliver stumbled down the crest for a closer look.

The things were oaks. Or at least, something like oaks. They were stunted trees, not much taller than Oliver. Their bark was tough and smooth. They were growing in gaps between the rocks, stretching their wiry limbs in odd, crooked directions. If these were what passed for oaks in this world, then Oliver could not imagine a greater contrast between other worlds and this one.

No use looking for a jumping marker here. This dead and barren Windblowne had never seen a Festival and never would.

“No one lives here—no one’s ever lived here,” Oliver said to the kite, which had settled wearily against his leg. “We’re all alone.” It was a vast and dark sensation.

“Not entirely true,” said a voice from behind him.

Oliver whirled. He hadn’t expected to see anyone in this wasteland. He especially hadn’t expected to see a familiar figure dressed in a robe and carrying a carved walking stick. He hadn’t expected to see Great-uncle Gilbert standing with a tired smile on his face, among the withered oaks.


The hell-world! Oliver thought. I found it! He cautioned himself to play it cool, in the manner of the world- class adventurer he had become. “Hullo,” he said with an air of breezy confidence. “I’m here to resc—”

“Who or what,” interrupted Great-uncle Gilbert, peering closely at Oliver, “are you?”

The poor old man, thought Oliver. The hell-world had driven him mad. Well, madder. “I’m your grandnephew, Oliver,” he explained patiently. “And I’m here to resc—”

“Oliver, eh?” interrupted Great-uncle Gilbert again, peering some more. “I suppose you are, under all that. You look like you’ve been shot through the woods from a cannon, my boy.”

Oliver looked down at himself. True, he was not at his best. His flying outfit was in ruins, and there wasn’t much of him that wasn’t coated in dirt, leaves, twigs, and goopy substances of mysterious origin. He tried to remember if he had been this disheveled when he had met Ilia. “Well, I can’t exactly help it,” he said. “I’ve flown across four worlds to resc—”

“Didn’t listen to me, did you?” interrupted Great-uncle Gilbert, shaking his head. “Now you’re trapped, too.” He sighed in a way that suggested he was resigned to Oliver’s stupidity, then set off at a trot, his walking stick rapping sharply against the rocky ground.

“Hey!” Oliver raced to catch up. “I came here to rescue you! Me and the kite—”

Great-uncle Gilbert whirled about and seized Oliver by the shoulders. “My kite!” he shouted. “Of course! My brave kite! Where is it?”

“Let go!” yelped Oliver, struggling. Great-uncle Gilbert was as deceptively strong as ever. Oliver thrust the kite into his great-uncle’s face. “It’s right here! See?”

Great-uncle Gilbert waved his hand dismissively. “That’s not my kite. My kite is one of the most beautiful creations that has ever come from human hands. It is a soaring masterwork.”

It was true that the kite was worse for wear. It might have been shot from the same cannon as Oliver. “Well, this is it,” Oliver said. “It’s been through a lot. All to rescue you, I might add.”

Great-uncle Gilbert’s eyebrows arched upward. He bent down to examine the kite. For a moment, he was perfectly still.

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