Impossible Journeys, 1: Pauk
It was storming out. It was the kind of weather that’s great if you’re inside sitting in front of a fire and staring out a picture window, but not if you’re outside dealing with it. And that, of course, is exactly what I was doing. I’d needed to run some errands – errands that could have waited, actually – and I got caught in a deluge.
A light spring drizzle had quickly turned into a torrential downpour, and of a sudden, I found myself lost in the very city in which I’d grown up. I’d been happily strolling down Meriwether Lane when the atmosphere thickened and the storm hit. Within minutes I was drenched. The rain fell so heavily that I could barely see the sidewalk beneath my feet. I looked up, searching for some kind of shelter and that’s when I realized that I was lost.
To my immediate left, what should have been the well-lit, glass-enclosed vestibule of my local pharmacy was instead a dark, thick, wooden door situated in the middle of a long, sooty, brick wall. The door was all of a piece with a heavy brass knocker placed just at eye-level; below that, in the faintest of letters was a single word: Lexicon. The door had no handle.
As I was weighing the pros and cons of knocking on this strange door – it was pouring out, but then, I’d never once seen this wall or this door before – the storm trebled in ferocity; that made my mind up. I grabbed the knocker and banged on the door. It swung open at once, swiftly and silently. Inside was all darkness. From within, a voice…
Hello? Is someone there?
Ah! Hello, hello and welcome, welcome. Do come in. Yes, do. Welcome to my…home…
Ah…so good of you to stop by, and such timing! The storm outside…the storm...it is ferocious, yes? Please, please come in, have a seat…get comfortable, yes, yes. Here, here dry yourself off. Would you care for something? Something to drink? Something to warm you up, maybe? Maybe a little glass of…
What a day, yes? What a day to be journeying out and about. Such weather, eh? So, tell me, what brings you to my humble door? You are seeking…something, perhaps? Yes?
I just might have what you need. Yes, I might, indeed. I will have it brought out for you post-haste. But first…would you care to hear a story? I would so love to share one with you…I do get so lonely these days…so few visitors. Weary travelers – such as yourself – seldom seem to stop by anymore.
I…wonder why that is…
Ah, but anyway, let me tell you a story, something to set your troubled mind to ease as you rest your aching bones. You seem to have come from quite a ways. I am sure you could use some entertainment, to relax and soothe, while you wait, yes?
Now, before you say anything, let me assure you that, no matter how fantastical they may seem, the things I am going to tell you are absolutely true –
What? Ha hah! But of course they are true! I can assure you, in my day, I was lauded the best storyteller in the land. And my stories were the best because they were true…are true! People would come from the farthest reaches just to hear my tales. I was not just some lay-by, I was their destination!!
…yet the visitors are so rare these days…
So! I shall regale you with a tale of the City of Pauk. You have heard of it, yes, this city? Well, some say it is a city. Some say it is its own world. Some say it is but a single room; a cavern somewhere, somewhen. No? No matter. Its legend lives on in me and so shall it now in you.
It begins thusly…
It was dusk. A man was walking down a road. Was he heading off somewhere? Off to battle? A grand adventure, maybe? Or maybe he was returning from one? It matters not. What does matter is that, as he walked down the road, he heard a voice. This is what was said:
Hear me, o’ man, and hearken to my words. A great wrong has been committed upon your people by the one who calls himself “king”. You must slay this “king” so that his evil may be undone.
The man pondered these words for a moment. He shook his head and moved on, unmoved. Again, the voice:
Ignore me at your peril. Would you invite harm upon yourself?
The man kept walking. He heard nothing more.
A ways further down the road, as the sun was beginning to set, he came upon a building. It appeared to be an inn. He decided to stop to gain respite from his journey. He walked up to the building and knocked on the door. There was no answer. He tried the handle; there was some resistance, but the door opened. He called out a greeting and was met with silence. He sensed that there were no other people about. He felt a bit uneasy, but decided that the building would suit for an evening’s rest. He entered and looked about his lodgings for the night.
The light filtering in through the open door showed him a greatroom with a wood-topped bar running the length of one side. It was covered with dust and detritus. A large open doorway occupied the wall opposite the entrance. The third wall was completely covered with what appeared to be a giant mural – it too was blanketed with dust, so the images were unclear. In the center of the room sat a fire-pit. It was a large, low-walled square made of brick and it was overflowing with ash. A chimney had been built into the ceiling above it.
The inn was hardly in the best of shape, but it was shelter. The man was content with the state of what he saw so he shut the door. He picked a spot halfway between the front door and the fire-pit, laid out his bedroll and settled in. He slept.
Later – he couldn’t tell if it had been hours or merely moments – he was awakened by a sound. Though a strange, dim light glowed from the open doorway, the room was mostly dark and he could see very little, so he cocked his head to listen. The noise was soft at first, a gentle scraping; it seemed some distance away. Slowly, it grew louder and closer. The scraping turned harsh, grating. He had just decided to get up when the noise stopped. He sat listening for a moment. Nothing. He lay back down fell asleep shortly.
He was awakened again, this time by a loud clicking noise. It sounded like a crab was scrabbling about aimlessly in the nearby dark. A very large crab. This time, he got up and reached for the long-knife he kept by his side. Once his hand was on the blade, however, the noise stopped.
It then began again quite abruptly, but now, it seemed, with purpose. The crab – or whatever it was – was moving away from him, towards the open doorway and its muted glow. He caught the briefest glimpse as it scuttled through the dim patch of light. His eyes must have been playing tricks! The thing he saw – so briefly, yet he knew he saw it – it was so large! It could only have been a man – it must have been a man – prone and crawling on his belly like…well, like some giant insect!!
But, but how? What kind of man? And what of that strange clicking?
He cursed his wild imagination and resolved to investigate further – in the morning, however! No fool was he! He returned to his bedroll and sat, knife at the ready, patiently awaiting the dawn.
He sat there for several hours. The light, however, never changed. He trusted his body’s rhythms, so he knew it must be very nearly sunrise, yet the room never grew brighter than the dull glow that crept through the doorway. Tired of waiting – and knowing that it was morning – he decided to begin his search for the “man-crab monster”, as he had chosen to call it. He gripped his knife and stood, readying himself. He had taken several long strides towards the doorway when his common-sense reared its head. What was he doing? Why investigate this “mystery”, this madness? He had no need. Morning had come and he had his journey to complete. Chuckling at his own foolishness, he returned to his bedroll to gather his things and get on his way.
He was ready in minutes and, after a quick glance around to make sure he hadn’t left anything, he headed to the entrance.
It wasn’t there. The wall was blank.
He looked around, confused. The room was exactly the same as when he’d entered: the bar, the doorway, the mural, the fire-pit…yet the door he’d come through was gone! That wasn’t possible! He spun around and looked in all directions. There was no door.
He was stymied – almost frightened. Yet, where a lesser man would have given in to panic, he stood firm. If the way through which he’d entered was no longer, he would find a different way out. He began his search for an exit, exploring the room more diligently than he had the night before. He gave a wide berth to the doorway that the “man-crab” had gone through; he would leave that for last.
Behind the bar he found naught but dusty, empty shelves and cupboards; not a mug or cask in sight, not even a barman’s rag. The fire-pit gave him the same: nothing. The chimney flue above had been sealed shut and the ash-hole underneath the floor of the fire-pit was shallow and filled with nothing but dust and ash.
He turned to the large mural on the wall. A face full of dust and a long-coughing fit showed him that blowing on it was not going to accomplish anything, so he pulled out a kerchief and wiped clean as much of the mural as he could reach. He stepped back and saw that it was in fact not a mural, but rather a map. He stepped back further and realized that he could not tell what it was a map of, however.
He glanced down towards the floor and saw a word written at the bottom of the map. He squatted down to get a better look. Unable to decipher it, he shambled forwards and wiped at the map again. He was now able to read the single word that was printed in large, block letters. It said: PAUK.
Ah! It is an exciting story, is it not? Yes? But look at the time! I fear you must go. Oh yes, yes you must! But, do, do come back to see me soon! And here, look here, we have found what you were searching for! Now you will be able to finish all on your own, yes? Yes!!
Here, here take your coat – it may still be storming outside! Let me walk you to the door. Ah, and don’t forget your hat, we wouldn’t want you to catch cold, would we? Of course not! Now you bundle up and stay warm and as soon as you get home, you can learn exactly what transpired in the City of Pauk!
I blinked…and I was back on the sidewalk. I turned around to ask – but wait! What? What just happened? Where did the door go? Where did the wall go? I stand there for a few minutes, confused, looking at the entry to the pharmacy. I reach up to scratch my head and practically brain myself with the book I didn’t realize I was holding in my hand.
It is a slim volume, yet surprisingly heavy for all its apparent lack of pages. I look at the cover. It reads: The Traveler’s Guide to Impossible Places.
I slide it inside my jacket to protect it from the remnants of the storm, and I head towards home.
I arrive in short order, shedding my wet clothes as I walk down the entry hall, not caring about the potential water-damage to the wood floors (they have survived worse) but doing my best to keep the book dry. I stop in my room long enough to grab a heavy robe and then I head straightaway for the den. As expected, I find a fire roaring on the hearth and a healthy scotch waiting on the small table beside my favorite chair (bless Jeremiahs, he always anticipates my needs).
I throw myself into the chair, knock back half the scotch, and open up the book.
The page is blank. I flip forward, expecting a dedication, or acknowledgements, maybe copyright information.
I rifle quickly through the pages. They are all blank! I don’t know why, but this makes me feel angry. Angry and, well, cheated! I’m being denied something that I know I deserve and I –
– looked at the bottom of the map again, closer this time. It definitely said “PAUK”. I wondered what that meant. I stood up and moved back to take in as much of the map as possible. I still couldn’t figure out what I was looking at.
At first, it seemed clearly the image of a great city. The detail was phenomenal: beautifully-sculpted fountains gracing vast plazas of manicured lawns; grand walkways leading through the many plazas to a massive city centre; a perfectly ordered system of canals connecting every district of the city to the lake at the heart of the city centre…
Closer inspection, however, had me convinced that I was looking at what could only be the representation of an entire world, laid out flat and rendered in such a way as to be accessible both to the eye and the mind.
No sooner had I accepted this new – yet barely tenable – interpretation when I realized that it too was wrong. What I was looking at was no more and no less than a room: a single, giant room.
To the side of this room – at the far side of the map – there was an antechamber; a smaller room with a single door leading in from the outside and, directly opposite that, a large doorway leading into the giant room.
My vision clouded and my ears began to ring. I staggered backwards as the nature of my situation hit me: I was stuck in a strange chamber where the only apparent way out was to step through an open doorway – in the wake of a man-crab monster – that led to a giant room.
What was even worse was I had no idea how I’d gotten there!
Before I could begin shaking and giving in to fear and despair, I pulled myself together and reminded myself that panic was for lesser men! I would do what I must to extricate myself from this situation. And if that meant facing-off against a giant man-crab, then so be it!
I grabbed my long-knife and stalked towards the doorway that led into this place known as Pauk. I walked through without pause.
This room, this Pauk…it was not a room at all. Rather, it was an enormous cavern. The dim light I’d seen earlier was the glow of phosphorescent lichen clinging along the base of the cavern walls.
I felt a strange shift in the air behind me. I spun, expecting the man-crab, but was met with a bare rock wall. The doorway behind me had vanished as though it had never been. A soft chuckling sounded from somewhere behind me. I twisted around, once again expecting the man-crab and once again being disappointed. There was no one there.
Oh, there is someone here.
The softest voice, just barely audible. A cold sweat broke out on my forehead as I felt my throat dry up.
“Who’s there?” I croaked. Thankfully, the dryness in my throat hid the tremor in my voice. “What do you want?”
No answer. I took a few tentative steps away from the wall. The map may not have shown any exits, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t look for one. Fortunately, the glow from the lichen was sufficient for me to see enough of the ground that I wouldn’t fall.
As I ventured forward, I felt something caress my cheek. I jumped back, arm outstretched behind me to brace myself against the wall; my hand caught nothing. The wall had vanished! My arms flailed about as I tumbled backwards onto the floor of the cavern. As I rolled over to get up, I saw that the wall had in fact not vanished, but rather it had moved. Or, I should say, I had moved. The few steps I’d taken had somehow put me several hundred paces away from the wall.
I stood slowly, checking myself to make sure I was unharmed. I’d suffered no injury, save a few tears to my shirtsleeve – and a few bruises to my pride. I looked about for the source of the alarming caress and noticed something hanging down around the level of my face. I at first believed it to be a vine, but it was far too light; it drifted about lazily.
Had I been in any normal sort of situation, I’d have assumed it to be a web of some kind. But in a cavern of this size…? I shuddered as images of spiders the size of rats crawled through my head. And then I jumped as I again heard a soft chuckle. It was followed by the clicking noise.
I looked about frantically, and that’s when I saw it: the man-crab. It zigzagged across the floor erratically – stopping and starting – slowly getting closer.
In the low light, I was able to discern very little. Only the vaguest of characteristics were clear. If it was indeed a man, I feared he was horribly misshapen. It came closer, in its strange, unpredictable way.
I gripped my blade and prepared for the worst.
Finally, when it was about ten paces away, it stopped. Expecting the worst – I just knew it was preparing to leap upon me – I braced myself for attack. Instead of leaping, however, it started…quivering. It took a few moments for the sound to catch up with the motion, but when it did, I realized I was hearing the chuckling again. This thing was laughing. It was shaking with laughter at me! I was too offended for the horror of the situation to truly sink in. Yet.
Slowly, its tremors subsided and the chuckles faded. But as they did, another sound took their place. It was a quiet chant. Three words repeated over and over, slowly getting louder with each cycle.
Welcome to Pauk…welcome to Pauk…welcome to Pauk…Welcome To Pauk…WELCOME TO PAUK!!!!!
I cringed as the chuckling rejoined the chants and then grew into sinister laughter.
And slowly – so, so, slowly – the man-crab began to rise, to stand. When he was fully upright, I saw that he towered over me, and realized that my blade would probably be of little use. For what I assumed would be the last time, I braced myself for attack. It never came. Instead, the man-crab kept on rising. He was a good seven or eight feet up in the air before he stopped and I finally realized what it was that I was looking at.
My screams echoed off the cavern walls and joined with the increasing laughter and chanting as I stood, frozen to the spot, staring into the eyes of a giant, human-sized spider.