This is the second part of No Return From Dead Mountain. Read the first part here: Part 1
“Where are they?” Nicolai whined, cupping his hands over his mouth and blowing. Others were standing around the fire, the wait for Yuri and Ludmila obviously taking its toll on their body heat and state of mind.
It had been 3 hours now, and Igor stood nervously on a cluster of boulders, looking out towards where he had last seen the missing hikers. His mind raced with possibilities, but he wouldn’t entertain them. Ludmila knew what she was doing, she was an experienced hiker, climber and adventurer and he’d seen her come through some pretty intense situations. He knew that there wasn’t much that could take her down and that’s why he loved and admired her so much. It was also why he was sure she’d be on her way back soon.
Time continued to drag on and the hiking party was getting restless. It was almost midday now. Semyon approached Igor, who was now seated on one of the boulders, staring into the distance.
“It’s been 4 and a half hours. We’re going to need to make a decision soon” Semyon was clearly trying to reason with Igor. “Do we press on or head back and find them?”
Igor’s forehead crumpled as he stared, determined, in the direction of his friends. Semyon put a hand on Igor’s shoulder and assured him, “Look, I totally understand if you want us to turn back and go after them. If I was in your situation, I’d do the same thing and I know every one of them would, too.” Semyon pointed to the others, who were huddled around the fire.
“We knew this expedition was not going to be an easy one.” , He continued. “We talked about the fact that we have to make decisions based on what’s best for everyone. We went over scenarios like this hundreds of times. There is not one of us who is not ready to give up this trip for the safety of Ludmila and Yuri.” He looked Igor in the eye and said, “You just say the word, and we will all, happily, go find them with you.”
Semyon had said what he needed to say. He left to give Igor some space to decide what to do. As he walked back to the fire, his waiting friends stared, looking for any sign of an answer. He simply shrugged and sat down. As he did, he heard boots in the snow behind him. He turned to see Igor making his way toward the group.
Igor came to a stop, looked up and said with sadness, “We will keep going. I am sure Ludmila and Yuri are fine.” As he stood there, the group became silent. They had clearly not predicted this would be his decision. They stared at him in disbelief.
“Are you sure?” Asked Alexander, finally breaking the silence.
“Yes”, Igor replied, without a moment’s hesitation. He had been over it and over it in his head. The only thing he could think of that would hold a woman like Ludmila up this long, is trying to find help for Vlad in town. Between here and town there was no rough terrain. There was no wildlife and because there was no wildlife, there were never any hunters in the area. The weather had been impeccable and the snow conditions were perfect for a hike. There was nothing at all that could have endangered Ludmila’s life or safety.
Igor had been planning this expedition for over a year now, and as the planning had taken shape, more and more friends and acquaintances had come aboard, eager to explore the Ural mountains. The goal was to reach Mount Otorten, or “Don’t Go There”. A place so named, was a place Igor had to go. He never turned down a challenge and the Ural Mountains were definitely that. He had grown up during and after the war, and had rarely had the freedom to run and play outside as a child. Once he was able to, it was all he could think about. Being outside, in the wild, uninhabited forests of Siberia, he felt at home. He couldn’t give this trip up for anything, and his decision was made easier by his knowledge that Ludmila would be furious with him if he went after her.
Onward, he thought, as he took one last look in the direction his three friends had left. Nothing. He bent down, rearranged his pack and pulled out marking ribbon. He would leave Ludmila a trail to find them.
He rummaged through his backpack for a split second before he slowly raised his head. Looking around, he noticed the light wind had stopped, the crackling of the fire was no longer audible, and the rustling of trees seem to have just ceased suddenly. He could see that every tree branch in the forest was dead still, like time itself had been stopped. Goosebumps formed on his skin.
“Igor” Alexander called cautiously, and almost at a whisper. The way Alexander had said his name sent chills up Igor’s spine and he was reluctant to turn around. He slowly stood up and turned to face his group.
What he saw instead, made his heart skip a beat.
Ludmila. There she was, so close to him that she was all he could see. Her face was flat, emotionless. She looked at him with dead eyes that felt like they were going through him and fixated on nothing. She said in a monotone, lifeless voice, “We’re back”.
Igor leaned to his right slightly, and, looking over Ludmila’s shoulder, saw Yuri, standing motionless with his back to the group, his arms hanging like dead weight at his side.
“Are you guys okay?” Igor was uneasy. His mind spun. How had they gotten there? He didn’t hear a single footstep and he had just looked out in the direction they came from. If they had come back from that direction, which was the only thing that seemed possible, we would have seen them coming for a while before they arrived. It seemed, to him, like Ludmila and Yuri just appeared out of thin air.
He looked at Ludmila, questioningly.”Are you okay?” She just stared right back at him, with a blank expression. She wasn’t even blinking, and Igor found himself looking down at her torso for any sign of movement. Her chest rose slightly and fell. He was relieved to see she was breathing but it hit him how ridiculous it was to think she might not have been. She just spoke, for Christ’s sake, he thought.
“Let’s go!” The entire group jumped and turned to face a roaring Yuri. Without warning, he turned forcefully and marched in the direction of their trek.
Something is definitely not right here, Igor thought as he grabbed his pack and helped kick snow on the fire to put it out. As his group made their way behind Yuri and Ludmila, Igor looked around the camp. Something sparkled in the snow and caught his eye. Bending down for a closer look, he realized it was a piece of metal. He swept the snow aside and picked it up with his gloved fingers. Her ring, he realized, turning it over. He knew this ring because he gave it to her. In fact everyone knew this ring because he’d had one of their mutual friends, a jeweler, make it for her. “That’s strange.” He said to himself, and slipped the ring in his pocket as he ran to catch up with his friends.