Still being cautious, he managed to get to his feet and took inventory of himself. Other than a few scrapes and bruises, he was miraculously intact. Reaching up, he touched his hair and realized his helmet was gone, which explained why his head was killing him. The harness was still in one piece, but parts of it had been shredded. The walkie was shattered, and the flashlight was missing. He ran a hand over his thigh and winced. Yep, he’d have one hell of a welt there, but he could walk.

He moved as close as he dared to the edge of the chasm and tried to peer upward, hoping to see the opening, but a large overhang blocked his view. A check below appeared to be a bottomless pit. A wind coming from somewhere seemed to gather in the center of the void like some kind of cyclone. Although he couldn’t see it, it made its presence known by the swirling dust and bits of rock.

“Fuck this. How the hell am I supposed to get back up there? They don’t even know I’m still alive.” He checked the depths again. “If I can get back toward the center where they can see me, I might be able to yell up at them. Hopefully the hole isn’t plugged.”

He double-checked again. A length of rope ran from his harness, looped slightly across the floor, and disappeared over the edge of the ledge. He drew it in, wrapping it between his hand and elbow, until he reached the end. “Thirty, maybe thirty-one or so feet. That should give me enough leeway.”

Securing his harness, he tied one end of the heavy plaited rope around a firmly rooted stalagmite. Already the wind seemed to be getting stronger. Its roar gradually rose in volume, and for a second he feared it might be signaling another avalanche.

Brix dug the toes of his boots into the dirt sides of the pit and began his descent, paying out the line a little at a time as he tried to get enough distance to enable him to swing outward, using his weight to help steady himself. Bits of sand and gravel lashed about him, stinging his face, almost blinding him. He hastily wiped his cheeks and forehead on his shirt sleeve before resuming. When he felt he had enough line extended, he bent his knees and kicked himself away from the side. He only got a glimpse, but it was enough to see it was impossible to see the hole above him. It was more of a dim light, as if it was being filtered through some sort of foggy lens.

 

He continued to kick outward, trying to see if anyone was attempting to come down after him. It was impossible to tell in the gloom. However, there seemed to be a light source coming from below.

 

“Hello! Hello! Can anybody hear me?” His voice was muffled in the building storm.

 

The light below looked to be wavering, as if someone was trying to shine it up at him. “Hey! Hey, you!” It had to be one of the spelunkers he was searching for. “Hey! I’m coming down!” He had no way of knowing how far he could get before his rope played out. With any luck, he’d reach another ledge before then.

 

It soon became evident that the farther down he went, the rougher the maelstrom, until the minute bits of dirt and rock threatened to scour his skin from his face and hands. Keeping his balance became extremely difficult, forcing him to cling to the chasm wall in an effort to orientate himself. Too often his feet would lose their purchase against the side, and he’d scramble to find another toe hold.

He kept checking for the light he’d seen earlier, but this far down the glow was not visible through the storm. However, there looked to be a ledge a few feet below and slightly to the right of where he was hanging. Sighing, Brix looked up. He could barely make out the edge of the hole. Judging where the opening might be, he shifted over to lower himself to the ledge and hoped he had enough line.

The wind clawed at him, pulling his hands away from the crumbling sides of the pit, when it suddenly blew him back into the center of the maelstrom and began slamming his body repeatedly against the unrelenting rock. He was a marionette, manipulated and abused. Battered and nearing exhaustion, Brix tried to keep from getting tangled in the rope as it twisted and turned. His head ached from the concussion he’d sustained and the thunderous roar of the gale. His nails were broken and his hands bloody from trying to keep their grip during his descent.

Looking up again, he could no longer see the rim of the hole, only a yellowish swirl of dust. His boots could not keep their hold, so he used his feet the best he could to straddle the wall, bracing himself against the wind and spreading out his arms to crawl crab-like to the small protruding ledge.

He could definitely make out the light now, a pale, yellow-white wash illuminating a tunnel approximately five feet in diameter. Paying out a bit more rope, Brix reached across the narrow span to grab the lip of the opening when suddenly a tremendous gust threw him away from the hole, ramming his shoulder into the nearby wall. He gasped in pain when the winds grabbed him again and swung him back to the ledge. It flipped him sideways, and too late he tried to adjust his position before the back of his head connected with the rock. Pain, thick and bright, filled him. His body went rigid, and he felt himself losing his grip on the rope.

Fear made him scramble blindly for the sides of the pit, but the whirlpool was not ready to relinquish its grip. He was flung back into the opposite wall before another burst of air snagged him, ready to smash him like a racket with a tennis ball.

He knew he was losing consciousness from the brutal beating. His only hope was to try and reach the edge of the opening on his next pass, drag himself over the lip, and out of the main force of the wind. As the storm started to swing him back across, he reached out with both hands and tilted himself, aiming for the hole. Miraculously, his left hand caught the edge, and he feverishly clawed at the smooth rock in an attempt to hang on. He shook his head, trying to clear it, but the power inside the abyss was too strong. He felt himself falling, his failing strength unable to grip both ledge and rope at the same time.

Strangely, he also felt a calmness blossom deep within him. The thought of immediate death no longer scared him. In fact, he almost wanted to release his hold and let the chasm take him, to finally end the black misery of the past four months. He hesitated, only for a moment, when a pair of strong hands grabbed him by the harness and hauled him over the edge, into the mouth of the entrance. Panting, gulping in great mouthfuls of clean air, Brix rolled over to thank his benefactor…when he looked up into a perfect copy of his own face.