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Puzzled by the Troll Patrol’s headscratcher, the group wobbled gently atop the gelatin camp beds Tim had conjured for them.
Matilda warmed herself with the flickering flames of their campfire, as she watched Gregory Schreck play a bluesy scale on his harmonica. There was barely room in her mind for a riddle as the maiden occupied herself with how her feelings for the Orc/Ogre/Lawyer were fast becoming more than that of a new friend. For her, his presence filled what would otherwise be a dreary space with a sense of hospitality and down-hominess.
“There’s something so unpretentious about the harmonica,” Eric commented gleefully, interrupting Matilda’s thoughts.
“Something kind of annoying too,” Tim said, pointedly.
Gregory ceased his playing and slipped the instrument into his breast pocket, “uh well, it’s been nice to meet y’all folks, but I always say that if you’re fixin’ to spend time with someone it’s best to get to know them too.”
Chapter 16: Campfire Stories
If you want to know more about something mentioned in the story (e.g. a creature, place or person) go to the Lore of the Land:
If you want information about our hero’s characteristics and inventory at the start of this chapter go here and scroll to the relevant chapter:
“If you’d oblige me the time I’ll give you the straight story,” he continued casting his eyes around to meet any incoming objections, “right then, there ain’t nothing fancy about me. I’m 42, a lawyer and father to two gorgeous kids.”
“How sweet! What are their names?” said Eric.
“Phlegm and Snout,” Gregory said raising a hand towards Tim who was already shooting his arm forward accusatorily, “and no, I don’t think the phlegm in the riddle has anything to do with my boy.”
“Kids must miss you a lot, though I guess it’s good that they get to stay home with their mum,” Eric posited.
The normally serious and direct lawyer misted over, and despite a solitary tear rolling down a plump, green cheek, he held his demeanour. Matilda took the opportunity to move closer to Gregory; she placed a caring hand on his shoulder.
“So you’re not married, then?” she cleared her throat to disguise her relief.
“Sadly, the kids mother… passed some years ago,” Gregory had returned to his state of stoicism, drawling calmly, “like I said, it’s hard raising two kids as bi-species, single-parent family. I always tell them when they’re in a conflict, just put yourself in someone else’s skin.”
Matilda nodded, “walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.”
“No, we don’t steal shoes,” the adage clearly hadn’t made its way underground, and Gregory continued, “but then there was this one time we were staying with the orc side of the family. I reminded Phlegm and Snout of how to live morally, and wouldn’t you believe it, in a red hot minute my orcish cousin had procured the skin right off the very person Snout had been arguing with.”
“Bah,” Tim couldn’t help themselves, “this is why you should stick with shoes and not skin in your analogies.”
“Well Tim, now we know more about Gregory than we do about you,” Matilda crossed her arms and audibly harrumphed.
The group sat in silence, save for the crackle of the fire.
“Fine, I’ll go,” Matilda said, poking her tongue out at Tim. “Eric and I hail from The Great Spaghetti Bowl.”
Gregory Schreck met her eye without a flicker of recognition.
“Unfortunately, it’s exactly what it sounds like,” Matilda shook her head. “A literal bowl of spaghetti.”
Eric added, “That’s right. We grew up in the shadow of this terrible prophecy having to cook offerings for a vile creature.”
“I was a farmer in the basil fields,” Matilda said.
“I see,” Gregory said, eyebrows raised, “and how about you, Eric?”
“Uh, a butcher!” Eric answered, his eyes ping-ponging from side to side.
Matilda regaled Gregory with stories of their time growing up. Eric chimed in occasionally as old friends do to spoil the endings of anecdotes, correct the record or exaggerate elements.
“It’s funny,” Matilda said, “until Tim arrived, I really didn’t understand how small our world was.”
“Yeah, it’s like we were told our whole lives to look at things one way, but it wasn’t the right one. Right?” Eric added.
“Now, that I’m a polyglot-” Matilda started.
Eric excitedly waved his hands, interrupting her.
“You’re coming out? I just want you to know that I love you just the same.”
Eric lept off his jelly bed and wrapped his arms around his friend.
“No, no, no a polyglot,” Matilda extracted herself from Eric’s grip. “It’s someone who knows a whole range of languages, not just the one.”
“Oh, I knew that!” Eric cleared his throat and plonked himself back on his blob of jelly.
“It’s just now that all these languages are in my head, it’s really shown me how limiting the Spaghetti Bowl was.” Matilda made an uncharacteristic sniffle, wiping her nose on her sleeve before continuing, “I now know of how… how insignificant I am.”
There was an uncomfortable silence.
“Well,” Eric coughed, “I’ve been holding onto a secret now, and like you said Matilda, it doesn’t seem like the past really matters anymore so I’m going to come clean.”
Eric propped his hairy knuckled hands on his lap, interweaving his stubby little fingers.
“You see, when I was apprenticing as a butcher I got this niggling sense that it was, ya know, wrong to kill things and eat them.”
Matilda clapped her hands, “I knew it! You’re a vegetarian!”
Gregory was delighted, “A vegetarian butcher? Can’t wait to tell the folks at home.”
“Well, yeah, I just love little critters.” He scanned the cave for Socrates and the two gave each other a friendly nod.
“So that’s why your mince was so lean!” Matilda laughed.
“Yep. It was all plant-based, ya see?” Eric shrugged, “these days that stuff is so tasty and appealing that people didn’t even seem to notice.”
“I can’t believe you never told me!” Matilda laughed.
“Yeah, well, seems pretty insignificant now. So far from home.” He concluded.
Eric continued the flow of conversation after his confession. He spoke of his youth and the summers at Cannoli Camp. Matilda frequently interrupted, just as he had when she spoke.
Even Socrates squeaked a little song out to show his excellent dancing acumen. Matilda translated the little fella’s sounds, the effects of Lady Kackel’s translation spell. Though the atmosphere was fun and frivolous there was something unsettling about the campfire arrangement, so far from the Spaghetti Bowl. So deep beneath the surface.
Hey… this place is kind of spooky, right?
Are the troop being watched?
The knight was uncharacteristically quiet. Tim sat off to the side, their chest plate ajar as they fisted handfuls of hay into the space where a corporeal knight’s abdomen would otherwise be. No one was sure why.
The jovial atmosphere was somewhat stifled by the knight’s dire mood, so Eric and Matilda tried to engage them in conversation. They both talked about Lady Kackle and their exploits with the Jabberwonky.
“He wasn’t so tough!” Eric said confidently.
“Not when you’re hiding behind a rock, right?” Matilda elbowed Eric.
“It wasn’t always rocks, Matilda,” Eric defended himself.
Despite their attempts to cajole the knight into the conversation, Tim didn’t join in, that is until eventually Gregory asked the obvious question.
“So what are you folks doing down here? Seems like quite a distance to come just for a holiday. It’s been a long time since we’ve had surface dwellers.” Here he raised his eyebrows “Heck, before ya’ll I don’t think I’d even ever met one.”
Eric and Matilda exchanged a look, both at once trying to muster any sensible reason they were so far from home and why they had blindly followed a hollow suit of armour they had just met into the depths. They didn’t know what Tim’s motives were, what the knight was hoping to achieve, how they even knew about the catacombs.
Not wanting to say all this, Matilda just shrugged her shoulders, “not sure, really.”
Eric followed Matilda’s lead and chuckled, “seemed like a lark.”
“That’s not true.”
Tim’s voice wafted over like a bad smell. The knight patted down the straw softly in their torso and gave a little whistle. With this Socrates scurried over and hopped in, nestling himself comfortably in the knight’s cozy innards.
“They’re here because of me and it’s about time I let them know what I know,” Tim got up and trudged over to the fire before plonking themself down on a boulder closer to the others.
“Or more accurately, what I don’t know. You see, I wasn’t always like…” the knight paused to think before shrugging, and gesturing toward themselves, “well, like this.”
Tim scratched little Socrates under the chin and continued, “the only problem is I can’t remember where it is I came from or who it is that I am.”
“You’re Tim Cognito…” Matilda interrupted slackjawed.
“I am now, but I gave myself that name. I don’t know where I’m from and I don’t know who I was.”
“What’s the first thing you remember?” Eric asked shocked.
“Years ago, I woke up on a beach in a me-shaped hole. An onlooker told me I’d been shot across the water and had landed on their island, from a catapult they’d assumed. When I crossed the water and found a city on a neighbouring land, no one could tell me anything.”
“The closest I got to anything of substance was an account from this old fortune teller who told me my spirit had been pulled from my body and placed inside this armour…”
“I suppose it was helpful - even if I could never find anyone to corroborate it - and it cost me all the money I had for the privilege.”
“I can’t help but question their account, because immediately after they told me my origins, they then said the moment I stopped searching for love I would find it - the problem is, I wasn’t looking for love.”
“Tim, we didn’t know. How awful!” Matilda said covering her mouth and leaning forward from her gelatinous perch.
“Yeah mate, that’s terrible!” Eric had quickly moved over to Tim, and was wrapping his stubby arms around the knight.
“But how did you end up here? What has brought you to the catacombs?” Gregory asked, noticing the missing details with laser, lawyer focus.
“Well, like I said, it’s been years,” they said sitting up straighter, “I moved from town-to-town heading west as if pulled there. I took little jobs here and there; postal worker, door-to-door salesperson, dental hygienist.”
Eric blew his bulbous nose.
“Mainly I stuck to working the fishing fields though, that’s why I smell like fish actually,” the knight said turning to their Spaghettian friends, “some fishmonger I was working for wanted me to marry his daughter. When I said no he had me cursed to reek of fish and still filed the paperwork!”
“You’re married?” Eric cried.
“You’re cursed?” Gregory probed.
“Yes, didn’t you notice the smell?” Tim asked.
“Now now, well yes I did. But southern hospitality being what it is I couldn’t very well say anything,” he concluded.
“You’re probably the first then.” Tim responded before continuing their story. “Anyway, fishing money was drying up. Peasants, wenches and crones alike lined my block demanding I do a quest here or an adventure there,” Tim said this part proudly, “turns out I was pretty good at it, I liberated a hamlet from a crotchety goblin, exterminated the blight corrupting a forest, must have defeated a dozen evil Larpers calling themselves The Dark Lord - which is honestly so unoriginal - and then one day I run into this old wizard and without even knowing anything about me he spoke to me in verse…"
Here Tim adopted their best wisened voice, “suit of armour true and hollow, forgotten yesterday but not tomorrow, for in the weeks and months that follow, head west lest you wish to wallow.”
“Is that it?” Matilda said.
“Yeah but then after a few months of heading west I saw him once more in the desert and this time he said something different: ‘a giant rock linguini filled,‘neath it tunnels have been drilled, amongst the gnomes so strong-willed, an item found your quest fulfilled’”
“An item found your quest fulfilled?” Eric repeated.
Matilda scoffed, “this wizard might be prophetic but his grammar’s pathetic.”
“The tunnels drilled and gnomes strong-willed must be a reference to the gnomes that live down yonder, it’s tricky but you may be able to get to them, they’re just past the city we’re heading to,” Gregory elaborated.
“Is that the last time you saw him?” Eric asked.
“No, I saw him once more just before meeting you two. He said one more thing, but it didn’t make any sense.”
“Go on then,” Matilda pressed.
“Closer now to be found, your name and your background, a scarecrow placed in the ground, and birds collide when skybound,” Tim looked around to see the confused faces of their friends, “yeah, that’s what I thought.”
“I guess it’ll make sense when we find the gnomes,” Matilda said.
“Don’t worry Tim, we’ll work out who you are, it’s quite a conundrum,” Eric added, stroking his goatee.
Who is this wizened elder? Lost senile septuagenarian in his pyjamas? Master of the art of divination? Lacklustre slam poet?
Comment on this post with a name and general description of who keeps coming forth to prophesise Tim’s future and we’ll add him to The Lore of the Land.
“Don’t worry no one is quite what they seem,” Gregory interrupted. “For instance, I never graduated from university!”
The group collectively gasped.
“I mean, I went and everything but campus life was just too much of a party!” He patted his stomach before adding, “too many packets of mi goreng and bottom shelf booze, well I really made a mess of my final semester.”
“But how did you become a lawyer then?” Matilda asked, sitting slightly further away from the Orc-tornney than she had before.
“Oh, it’s no big deal! Down here anyone can become a lawyer and since the armistice of the Battle of Skip to the Loo it was decreed that orcs be lovers and not fighters, so we’re a pretty trustworthy sort of people,” here he winked at a blushing Matilda. “That’s one of them cattywampus laws I was fetchin’ to tell you about.”
“This place is a total puzzle,” an exasperated Tim spoke.
“Yes, but don’t forget about the other riddle we have on hand currently,” Gregory brought everyone back to the reality of the moment, “if we want to get past that Troll Patrol, we need to think of the answer.”
“We’ve had a long day!” Matilda yawned, as she lay herself on her jelly bed, “surely the answer will come to us overnight.”
Eric followed suit, plopping himself down on his, “good night everyone.”
Tim Cognito, the knight that never slept, listened to the snores of their friends and slipped into a state of fear, worried they were all in danger and it would be entirely the knight’s fault.
Don’t forget the riddle, we’ve still got one week to work it out:
When I’m sticky you can mould me,
But I am tricky, you can’t control me.
I won’t give a pox and am like phlegm,
Just like a fox but with an M.
We’ll even throw in a hint, instead of thinking of the animal think of how it is commonly described…
Help out your friends and lead them to victory!
What a puzzling history the knight has been keeping to themselves! Amnesiac protagonist is, like, a pretty revolutionary idea in fantasy, right? That’s what I thought!
Remember, if you want to be a part of the tale: you can pitch new areas, creatures, characters, and items/spells in the existing threads and see them get added to the Lore of the Land encyclopaedia.
Stay tuned for the next chapter next week. Voting closes the day before, comment answers are open until we feel like closing them!
Hey there, not much is happening besides the continued roll out of these chapters… hope you’re enjoying them.
Michael did start a new Substack newsletter called Ex/Rec/Acc posting about all kinds of stuff. Michelle might write on their too at some point. At the moment there are a couple of posts up, one recommending films by every director he could find that wore an eyepatch (including the stories of why they needed them) and one about his other newsletter Places I’ve Never Lived and the influences for the stories and buildings he’s drawn there. It’d be cool for you to check it out.
The first piece of interactivity last week was a spin on the wheel to see what contingency we’d use if no one worked out the riddle after this week. Two options tied: Successful Sneak and Give Stinky Stone. I flipped a coin and Successful Sneak won! How we’re going to write that all five members of the party snuck by without being noticed is beyond me… but we’ll work it out.
The number one most popular Catacomb law was that Orcs, by law, are lovers and not fighters. Nice one! Apparently, this also means there was a famous battle at a place called Skip to the Loo there’s a nice piece of world-building.
Finally, there was this three-part epic:
And the results of this you will have noticed manifested in the chapter above. HUZZAH!
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