::'''''Small Worlds'''''
::''Chapter Seven''

Vaniah's face went pinched and long as the shedim delivered the blow to his family jewels, but bore the blow with a shocking constitution. His grimace spread his teeth all across his face, but he refused to let himself collapse or show any more pain.

"Thanks," he said, his teeth clenched. He put one hand down to massage the inside of his thigh. "Nice to know... Someone else hates that crazy bitch as much as I do."

"Likewissse, Gunssslinger."

Vaniah ran a finger over his purpling cheek. "Ah--I ''do'' have a name, you know. Vaniah. And that's the only part you need to know."

"Very well," the shedim'ato shrugged. "Vaniah it isss."

The Gunslinger looked around dazedly, trying to get a handle on the world they had fallen into. The landing had been soft--the worldjump had prevent them from accelerateding too much to crash on impact--but the air around them was thick and bitter, and a mineral stink filled the air.

"Where the hell are we, anyway?"

"My guesss? A sssatellite world to Cree'ata, given by the hot sssprings and the presssenssse of kabuwit treesss." He pointed to the swordlike, pondrous leaves of a nearby plant, hung with prickly silver-blue fruit.

"Very nice," Vaniah said. He took a step forward without taking much of a look, and had to pull back before falling into a scalding hot spring. "Y'know, you seem pretty knowledgeable. I mean. For a shedim."

"And you are lesss ugly than usssual, for a human," Visstor replied.

Vaniah shrugged. He wasn't sure what he'd been expecting in reply.

Checking the ground at his feet, he turned away from the hot spring and turned toward a break in the kabuwit trees. The air here was wild and uncivilized, but the pathway cut into the jungle had the beaten, intentional look of something put there by sapients. With any luck, it lead toward civilization. He turned around to beckon to the shedim and set off down the trail, putting his hands into his pockets.

The shedim followed quietly as they wound their way down the narrow path, alien flyers rustling and chirping in the trees. Otherworldly insects skittered along the leaf litter, and a jade-green feathered lizard turned its protruding eyes on them before rushing up into the safety of the canopy.

"Ssso the gun isss the Prophetesss' world, then?"

"Hell, it's news to me," Vaniah shrugged. "My mother... Well. It's a long story."

"We have time, Vaniah," the shedim said.

Vaniah closed his eyes and bit his lower lip. "Let me rephase that. It's not whether or not we have time to tell it. It's about whether I ''want'' to tell it at this time."

"Fair enough," the shedim'ato replied. "What world were you hunting, ssspecifically, if that wasssn't the cassse?"

Vaniah watched a pair of beetles spiraling around each other, distracted. "I dunno. Any of 'em. I'm pretty good at world-bottling. I put a galaxy-sized universe into a marble, once. Sure, the exertion nearly killed me; I wouldn't want to do it again, but I did it. I'd say there's no one better, but..." He kicked at a crumpled, colorful plastic wrapper in the path. Definitely a sapient trackway, then. Not unless the amythyst hawkbeetles had suddenly developed an affinity for Chocolate Cakincreems.

"Do you ever ssstop to think about what the Prophetesss doesss with them onssse ssshe hasss them?"

"That's none of my concern," Vaniah said abruptly.

"But you know, Gunssslinger."

"Yes." He looked off to the transparent green-gold canopy. "There's a reason I never visit worlds I plan to bottle."

"Do you alwaysss work for the Prophetesss?"

"This is the first time," Vaniah admitted. "I tried to avoid it, but I'm pretty sure she contacts all bottlers at some point or another in their careers. And she's ''very'' persuasive."

"I well know," the shedim'ato confirmed.

The two walked on in almost companionanble silence, their eyes wandering off to follow the paths of the creatures dashing along the tree trunks and through the air.

Visstor spoke. "Did you sssuspect there wasss a world bottled in your--"

"I ''said'' I didn't want to talk about it," Vaniah replied.