“Indeed,” replied his great-uncle. “You know, Oliver, at first I assumed you were as impossibly stupid as the rest of them, but now I see that I was not completely right!”

Oliver decided to take that as a compliment. “The rest of them?”

“Yes! The rest of the fools in Windblowne! I told them of the old legends—that the oaks of our mountain are linked with oaks in the others, and that the night winds blow across them all—but they wouldn’t listen. Banned me from the Festival. Fools! It’s really that they didn’t like losing every year, you know. It was all pure professional jealousy!”

Oliver sensed that Great-uncle Gilbert was headed off into another rant. “How many worlds are there, anyway?” he asked, trying to divert him.

Great-uncle Gilbert shook his head. “I don’t know. Thousands. Millions. Billions!”

“Then I got really lucky,” said Oliver, “finding you among all of them.”

Great-uncle Gilbert gave him a blank stare. “Lucky? No, I’d call it exceedingly clever of you to have realized that I designed that handvane to guide me home.”

“Oh … yes,” said Oliver. “Clever of me. Exceedingly.” He looked doubtfully at the desert expanse. Though it didn’t seem as barren and dead as it had before, it was definitely not home.

“Actually,” he went on after a thoughtful pause, “it was really Ilia who—”

“Never got a chance to try it out myself, of course,” his great-uncle interrupted. “Can’t take off with the kite. Too fat!” He patted his enormous stomach happily. “Appreciate your testing it out for me, lad. You do have your uses!”

“Any time,” replied Oliver.

A chill breeze rose, and Oliver shivered. Though his great-uncle might like it here, he was nevertheless a prisoner of Lord Gilbert. And the hunters were doubtless on their way.

If Great-uncle Gilbert was worried about that, he certainly didn’t show it. He pushed on, busily pointing out various features of the landscape. There was a hidden spring that sent a stream of clear water trickling over the rocks, and strange prickly bushes with edible fruit. “Delicious roots, too,” said Great-uncle Gilbert.

Oliver could not imagine eating a root, but he supposed he would have to get used to it. Or at least he would have, if the clock were not ticking toward doom for thousands, millions, or billions of worlds. He made several attempts to point out the danger.

“So, you see,” he said after describing the world of giant oaks, “the entire forest lost its leaves at once. Lord Gilbert has activated the rest of the hunters. He—”

“Look!” cried Great-uncle Gilbert. “A snake! Marvelous!” He attempted to chase after it, but the startled snake slithered off in a blink.

Oliver sighed and followed his great-uncle. Soon they burst into a small clearing.

“Home,” announced Great-uncle Gilbert with an imperial sweep of his hand.

Oliver stared, amazed. His great-uncle had built the beginnings of a new treehouse. Not a house up in the tree, because these oaks were too small for that, but a small hut with a low roof formed from the spreading branches of a little oak. Walls were constructed with branches bound together. Large rocks served as furniture. Great-uncle Gilbert hadn’t wasted any time.

“You’ve made a house!” said Oliver, surprised.

“Brilliantly observed,” said Great-uncle Gilbert. “What else would I do? Got to live in something!”

“But don’t you want to go back home to Windblowne?” asked Oliver.

Great-uncle Gilbert snorted and sprawled on a couchlike rock. “Why would I? I’ve got my privacy at last! Delightful. If only I could find some chickens, life would be perfect!”

“What do you mean? You had plenty of privacy in Windblowne!”

But his great-uncle was staring into space, muttering, “Chickens … chickens … where to find some chickens?”

Home, thought Oliver. Great-uncle Gilbert’s handvane had known all along. The crazy old man had set up shop in the hell-world without thinking twice.

Oliver grabbed his great-uncle’s arm and shook it. This was no time for the old man’s eccentricities. “Great- uncle Gilbert!”

“Eh, what? Oliver!” His great-uncle seemed newly startled by Oliver’s presence. Oliver repeated his question.

“Privacy in Windblowne? Hardly! Too many presumptuous boys prowling around, zapping me off to other worlds!”

“You mean Two, right?” said Oliver.

Great-uncle Gilbert waved his hand airily. “Is that what you call him? Yes. Atrociously behaved. No surprise, considering the appalling savagery of his caretaker!” He leapt up and darted about, searching for something. “At first the boy wanted to know about kites. Admirable! Happy to oblige such a talented lad, of course—”

Oliver winced.

“—but they couldn’t fool me for long! Not with a barrage of letters from him, demanding to know all my secrets! The old fool wanted to control the paths between worlds for his own ends and was willing to employ the most brutal means to do it. You must have seen those black strings—”

“Wires,” corrected Oliver importantly.

“Strings everywhere, sucking life from the oaks!” cried Great-uncle Gilbert. “And the old madman wanted me to work for him! Can you imagine that?” He broke into an insane giggle. Then his eyes widened, and he thrust a hand into his robe. His face brightened, and he pulled a carving knife from a pocket. “There you are!” he said, wagging a finger at the knife. “Hiding in my pocket all along. Now, let’s have a look at the oak.”

Oliver’s heart fell when he saw the riven oak. The little tree was nearly dead. Most of its spiny leaves had fallen, and its branches drooped against the ground. Oliver knelt beside it and stroked the withered branches. Though afraid of what he would see, he turned to look at the kite, hoping there was enough strength left in the oak to—

Yes. The kite fluttered slightly in Great-uncle Gilbert’s hands. But the master kitesmith was frowning.

“Can you fix it?” Oliver said.

“Stop asking me that,” said his great-uncle. “I can fix it.” But he sounded a little unsure, and his eyes were glistening with tears.

“It’s a terrible thing,” Great-uncle Gilbert said sadly, “and it’s all my fault. That madman would never have known about the Way Between Worlds if it hadn’t been for me.”

“No,” said Oliver, “he would have figured it out. You all seem to have a knack for that.” And he told Great- uncle Gilbert about Ilia’s Windblowne, where an Oliver had been carried away by one of his great-uncle’s kites.

For once, Great-uncle Gilbert listened intently, dabbing at his eyes with one sleeve.

“Fascinating,” he said when Oliver had finished. “There is more to this than even I knew. You must tell me everything about your adventures. Come, I’ll work on the kite. But first, we’ll need just a bit of this.” He leaned over with his carving knife and cut a branch from the riven oak. “It will have to be enough,” he said, looking at it doubtfully.

“Why do you need that?” asked Oliver.

“Do not question—” began Great-uncle Gilbert, then stopped. He started again, gently. “The oaks in this world, as you have noticed, have special qualities. It will help if I can use a bit of one of them in the kite.”

They trudged solemnly over to the house-in-progress. Oliver sat on one of the chair-rocks while Great-uncle Gilbert spread the kite out on the ground. His fingers searched the kite, testing, probing. “Fine work by that boy, fine work,” he mused. “Surprising how close he came, really.” From deep within his robe he pulled tools, twine, and a mix of other objects. The branches and tail that Oliver had brought were also produced, and then Great-uncle Gilbert’s hands began to dart about so quickly that Oliver could scarcely tell what was happening.

“This other you is really quite talented,” Great-uncle Gilbert said after a minute. “You must be immensely jealous!”

“You don’t have to put it like that,” said Oliver, hurt. But then he realized he wasn’t jealous. He felt proud of Two, and of himself. After all, he was the one who had brought the crimson kite back to Great-uncle Gilbert. He wasn’t sure that Two could have done that. He informed Great-uncle Gilbert of this.

“Of course, of course!” said his great-uncle, slapping his knee. “Outstanding work, lad. Especially considering

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