Winona, blessedly, reappeared as we entered the mall. He stepped out from behind the vending machines, which as it turned out were not as tall as his huge green hat with the iron spike. Disappearing behind them had actually been no mean feat, now I thought about it.
“I was looking for Creepy and Mister C of 9,” he explained. “I didn’t find them, although I did find Mister C of 9’s sword,” he held it up gingerly by one of its crossguards. “He’d stabbed the glowing box with it.”
“It’s a vending machine,” I said, then explained with a flash of inspiration, “which is sort of like a street vendor, only it’s just a box with food and drinks in it, and you give it money and it gives you the food.”
“What happens to the street vendor that is replaced by the glowing box?” Winona asked.
“I – not sure, actually,” I admitted. “I think … would the answer ‘starves to death a hundred and fifty years ago’ be too depressing?”
“It’s sad, certainly, but these things happen.”
“Then I’ll go with that,” I decided. “Of course, street vendors are still around, they sell mostly cooked food provided they have a special license for it, and these machines are owned by corporations that mass-produce preservative-laden snacks that don’t need to be heated up or stored in any particular way, except for the ones that do, and those vending machines have special gases in them that-”
“We may be incriminating ourselves just by listening to you,” the Drake said. “Oh look, there’s Creepy.”
“There you are,” I said as Creepy sauntered back towards us. “Where did you go? And where’s Mister C of 9?”
“He was escorted away by security,” he said, “but then they screamed and ran off when he removed his sunglasses.”
“That didn’t answer my question.”
“Are you sure? It feels like it did.”
“Perhaps we should make for the gastropub you were talking about,” Winona suggested. “Just in case Mister C of 9 decides to head straight there and slay the monstrous Pete.”
“I’m pretty sure Pete’s not actually monstrous, and probably doesn’t even exist,” I said, “but that’s still not a bad idea. You vanished pretty tidily yourself just now,” I congratulated the Xixian as we started through the mall.
“I was a Mysterious Disappearer Third Grade before being granted a place in the court,” he said modestly. “After I’d safely abdicated from the throne, of course.”
“What’s a Mysterious Disappearer?” I asked.
“I always assumed they were assassins who made inconvenient people disappear,” Creepy remarked.
“No, no. It’s a branch of the Guild of Quest Givers, Clue Sharers and First Act Arc Finishers,” Winona explained. “I specialised in making fleeting eye contact with an adventurer or lead member of a band of ragtag heroes across a crowded marketplace, and then vanishing when a knot of bickering merchants or a cart laden with yams went past. It’s a lot of training, a lot of very undignified scrambling and getting your feet run over by wagons at the start,” he laughed fondly. “I still remember my old instructor, Camulon the Extant,” he said, and suddenly barked, “I can still see the edge of your robe behind that stack of chicken cages, Bunklet! Bloody pathetic!”
“‘Camulon the Extant’?” I raised my eyebrows.
“Camulon tore up the book, back in his day,” Winona said wistfully. “His thing was just being there the entire time, and having the same conversation with anyone who came past. Rain, hail or shine, he was an immovable object. Most of his friends were killed in the NPC massacres following my … father’s … rise to power,” he glanced at Creepy. “Camulon survived, but he spent the rest of his life teaching elementary cliché-craft to pimply teenagers. Some people whispered that it was his penance, for surviving.”
We found Mister C of 9 standing outside Pete’s Pints and Deconstructed Burgers, looking rather forlorn. He brightened up when he saw us.
“You found Stormbringer Sting Snaga Sikanda Scalpel Sorrow Sihill Swordy McSwordface,” he said happily, as Winona handed over the dead black blade.
“That’s the name you gave your sword?” I blinked.
“Yes, it is,” he tucked Stormbringer Sting Snaga Sikanda Scalpel Sorrow Sihill Swordy McSwordface away and drew his black garb around himself with dignity. “But I can change it to ‘Bob’ if it’s too confusing…”
“So what about this place?” Carla stepped up. “Hopefully you’ve seen by now that, despite what the Drake said about war crimes, this is just a regular pub restaurant and is not in fact run by a monster. And either way, it looks like it’s closed for the holidays…”
“Over here,” Mell called. “I’ve found it.”