A dull, muted breath was barely articulate in the dank, close darkness. At certain gaps, it would cease altogether before resuming with a rapidity that was clearly indicative of its possessor’s fear. On and on, in fluctuating intervals, it imitated this pattern –wearing and grinding its owner without release. The aghast face of this young warrior, not yet twenty five years old, was as pale as death; she sat propped against, what felt like a cold, damp, snow-crusted rock with nothing but her water-resistant parka to shield her from its coolness; her downcast, increasingly dispirited eyes –destitute of hope and wearied by the trial of the indefinable hours-- peered unblinkingly into the ominous blackness, which was marginally brightened by the glint of white snow that had fallen into the pit. Her gloved hands, torn at several finger tips and moistened by the snow, were heedlessly strewn upon the ground. The dried blood encrusted beneath her finger nails testified of her numerous and fruitless attempts to scale the spiky, mountainous rock that formed the boundaries of her prison. As she sat, her physical and mental energies spent by the hardship of the hours, she began to sink further into a despairing frame of mind; the more her harried thoughts focused on the help that should have already come, the more it became a cesspool of feverish fears. Not only would the chances of her survival diminish with each passing hour of her continued exposure to the bitter temperatures, she was trapped in a perilous predicament that for as long as it had lasted remained surreal to her. She had a tormentor; a peculiar tormentor; a sentient, wily predator whose deliberate, brazen antics since its first assault compelled her most strident fears.
Without fail, at the appointed interval, a heavy, abrasive rattle penetrated to her presence, taunting the strength of her fear and accelerating that aforementioned violence in her breath. Almost immediately, the putrid stench of rotting flesh assailed her senses and she was nearly overcome by a stinging, tear-jerking sensation. Panting heavily, she leapt to her feet and began to search the wall to find that sure grip that she knew was there. It was drawing nearer. She heard it –that loathsome, bestial hissing, which now drove her partly up the rocky wall, careless of the pain that shot through her thinly veiled, sorely lacerated skin. She knew it would not be long before a revolting, dark mass appeared before the widening gap in the barrier that separated it from her temporary haven. This had been their routine –a perpetual cycle of the hunter and the hunted. On mark, she felt the cavern begin to vibrate against her tensed body, which fought tenaciously to stay cleaved to the rock. When she reluctantly turned her head to see it –that hateful, mangled sight— she shuddered physically and bit her lip to suppress her instinctive cry. Never in her life had she seen…or sensed anything as dreadful, as horrific, as unpleasant, as this. Her skin was so grossly prickled with fear that even the soft furs of her garments felt rough against her skin and she began to tremble uncontrollably.
By now the acrid, fetid stench had fully permeated her little sanctuary, and she literally began to choke. Gasping for air, she strained towards the hidden heavens, silently willing her shaking body, which had been weakened by the many weeks of limited activity, to hold fast to its position. Somewhere in her subconscious, she heard the belligerent butting of the outer walls that sent chunks of rock flying and the frantic winged creatures somewhere above, scuttling. She thought that she’d seen it all, until, to her unspeakable horror, she espied several grotesque worm-like tentacles slithering across the snow from the breach in the wall. Repulsed and disgusted, she struggled to gather the shreds of her floundering courage, and jumped back down into the pit, hardly knowing what she planned to do but knowing that something must be done to save herself. Warily, and yet wistfully, she swept her eyes over the ground and hefted one of the heavy rocks that had been broken from the wall. Summoning her brute strength, she tossed it through the hole and struck the creature’s eye. In a fit of feral rage that sent shivers up her spine, the creature thrashed and thumped the wall before retreating, no doubt, to recuperate its next malignant attempt.
Still stifled by the stagnant, reeking fumes, and coughing incessantly, she began to ponder her situation. She had to get out of there; there was no mistaking it; she’d felt the creature’s blood lust and knew that the time was short. But first she needed to settle her mind…to cast off her debilitating fear. She could not function or much less think logically in her agitated state; and she couldn’t afford to devolve into another pity fest; not while some strength remained and there was some fight left. She’d done it before; she’d conquered obstacles that had been just as implacable, and she’d do it again; she had to believe that. Yet, truthfully, she recognized that there was something so much more inherently evil and impossible in this situation that kept her undone. Five years ago, when she had despaired of her life and her freedom, in hindsight, her fears had been as nothing compared to these. Here, she was unmanned by the sheer futility of her situation, and in alternating turn of thought, genuinely felt herself unequal to it. Moreover, as time would undoubtedly favor the ill advances of her foe, she knew very well that the odds of surviving were markedly against her. And even if by some stroke of luck she’d managed to elude this situation, there was still the bitter cold to contend with, which, as it was, had already begun to gnaw through her coverings, even searing her flesh. But she had to fight.
As a Kyoshi warrior, discipline, both in mind and body, had always been her way of life. That tenet had never failed her before. However unworthily she might have begun, once she’d drawn upon that principle, her qualms never lasted. And, if a time of unspeakable suffering should ever arise, she knew that it was what would give her the strength to endure; she depended upon it. When Azula had almost broken her, she had prevailed beyond her own physical distress precisely because of her training. Now, reflecting upon this test, and how she had fared hitherto, she knew that she’d fallen short. Rather than rising to the worth of her Kyoshi garment, she’d done exactly that which was contrary by allowing her fears to dominate and persevere.
She was ready to correct that.
Regrettably, with the loss of her ice picks and other gear, she was faced with an ambitious challenge. On her many tries to scale the granular shaft through which she had fallen, she’d only succeeded in gaining about ten feet or so from the ground. From the feeble light that filtered to that depth, she’d descried that the rest of the way was hindered by a thick, sturdy slab of ice. Nevertheless, it still remained her only plausible means of escape. While she contemplated this difficulty, rigorously taxing her mind to think innovatively, -mentally examining every possibility- she was suddenly roused by a vague scraping sound that seemed to come from beyond the rock wall. Her heart was beating so fast that she swore that she heard it. Could it at last be Katara? Up until then, she just couldn’t understand why no one had already come to her rescue. Katara had been within view when the ice had given way beneath her feet, plunging her through a swirling tunnel of ice and snow until she was abruptly thrust into this dark cavern. It had all happened so quickly. Without so much as a visible crack or shattering noise to presage her impending crisis, she’d been mercilessly sucked in by gravity. The intense velocity of impact had swiftly plunged her into an unconscious state until she’d awoken some indistinctive time later to a macabre situation further exacerbated by her cries for help.
“Hello,” she cried, half hesitantly. The echo of her voice created a harmonic chorus throughout the chasm. “Is anyone there?”
After her plea had faded, she listened with bated breath. The terrible phantom whispers that bounced upon the howling wind some hazy distance above was all that she heard; all else was silent. Seized with an irrational burst of anger and disappointment, she struggled to temper her emotions. Maybe it had been her imagination. Maybe the terrible darkness had finally begun to take its toll and she was losing her grip on reality. She remembered what it was like to be left in darkness; it preyed upon the senses…eating away one’s resolve until hallucinations set in. No, she had to keep it together.
“I can do this,” she muttered defiantly. “I can.”
Feeling around the unleveled ground with her booted foot, she began another rough sweep of the earth. Maybe, just maybe, her gear had fallen with her and she’d missed it in her previous search. Then again, maybe it was just like her stupid luck to end up at the bottom of a smelly, stinking pit without her gear. With a frustrated kick, she tore her outer gloves from her swollen, aching hands, tucked them safely into the breast of her coat, and began tentatively to examine the sharp ridges on the other side of the mountainous rock. If she could attempt over ten feet on that side, passing the lower end of the ice-bed that laden the other wall, perhaps somehow she’d be able to bridge the span between the two walls and switch to the other side from whence the light irradiated. Honestly, she thought it unlikely, but felt that it was better than doing nothing in light of her looming jeopardy. Finding a sure grip, she cautiously hoisted herself against the cold, prickly rock and began to single out other ridges to aid her ascent. It was an arduous climb; her fatigued arms, which had sustained considerable bruising on her impetuous descent, were afflicted with varying degrees of pain; still, she couldn’t believe how easily the strength in her arms had degenerated over the past few months; they were positively trembling with the toll of her exertions and she could barely hang on.
Cleaving to the rock for dear life, she tried to block out the intensifying ache in her body; this was her training in practice; this was mind over matter. With the renewed din of her tireless pursuer, her rest was short lived and she was forced to hasten her movement upward. By the time the fierce thud came, which shook the small cavern severely, she’d made little progress. Adrenaline pumping as a thunderous crash followed below, she pushed herself mercilessly, propelling her body upward. As she grew nearer to the light, she was met with a fresh new problem. Instead of the columns converging closer, they grew apart; and she couldn’t risk switching now because of the slabs of ice on the other wall that still prevented this. She couldn’t risk falling; not when she was convinced that the beast had nearly furrowed all the way through the decimated portion of the wall below. When she glanced down into the pit, she could see a dark body partly at the bottom and she shuddered. Even from that height, she could already smell its foul stench. She briefly closed her eyes and gathered her motivation to keep moving.
“Suki!” The sound of her name startled her. It was whispered in a low, cautious tone.
“Katara? Where have you been? Where are the others?”
“Shh! Keep your voice down. I’ll explain later.”
“Okay, but I need some help.” From her position, her back was facing her friend.
“I’m on it.” The silhouette knelt and began to peer down into the darkness, deeply troubled by the malevolent riot that resonated from below. “Can you make it to the other side?”
“It’s covered with ice.”
“Not a problem.” The water-bender turned in the bleak light, grabbed something from the ground, and held it up with a slightly unsteady hand. “Here, I have some rope.” She tossed the dangling rope to her friend, who, after a minute or two, was able to secure it around her waist, while the other bended the ice from the rock. “Ready?”
“Yeah,” said the other as the thrashing below escalated.
“Try switching now. The rope is secure.”
Having a little less faith, the other pulled the tense rope to test it. After a few unsuccessful attempts, Suki was able to make it to the other side, where she was now able to see Katara standing astride on a ridge. Though her hands were positively sporting from their wounds, there was no time to lose. She had to get out there. Wincing, she began to climb towards Katara, who was now lying prostrate with her hands extended downward to lend her the strength of her arms.
“Got you!” Katara said, through clenched teeth, as she strained with her friend’s weight, eventually pulling her to safety.
“Aaahh!” cried Suki, as she threw herself breathlessly to safety.
“You’re hurt!” said Katara, who was looking at her friend’s bloodied hand.
“It can wait.” Suki leaned over and peered down into the black pit. “We have to get out of here.”