This is a continuation of No Return From Dead Mountain. Read previous parts:
“Ok, I think we can set up camp here for the night”, Alexander yelled back across the group of adventurers, so they could all hear.
The group started bustling about, opening packs and setting up tents. Igor pulled out his flint and got to making fire as quickly as possible. Everyone knew that fire was the most important thing on an expedition like this. It meant hydration and warmth and when you spend this kind of time out in sub-zero temperatures, away from civilization, the two most common killers are hypothermia and dehydration. Fire, Igor knew, was life insurance out here in the Urals.
A spark caught and flames grew around the kindling Igor had strategically piled up. Rustem arrived with an armful of wood, which he piled carefully next to the fire. He looked at Igor, his face washed with concern. Igor nodded at him as if to say he understood, and turned toward his pack to start setting up his tent.
The group had been walking for close to 6 hours. During that time, Ludmila and Yuri hadn’t said a word. Igor had never been the prying type, but this was completely unlike Ludmila. Her personality was normally outgoing and bubbly, especially when she was on one of the many treks they’d taken together.
He pulled her ring out of his pocket and inspected every inch of it. It had been hand cast from silver. The pyramid shaped face was enameled with an intricate red and blue and white floral design. When Igor had first seen it, it blew him away. It was more beautiful and detailed than he’d expected. When he’d given it to her as a symbol of his dedication, she’d cried real tears of joy. It was one of Igor’s most cherished memories, even though it had only been a few months ago.
Lud was always open with her feelings. She had a wonderful sense of humour and what seemed like boundless energy. Igor loved that about her, and could always count on the fact that life would never be dull with her around. This quiet stoicism, was so inexplicably opposite to the woman he had fallen in love with. There had to be a reason why she was acting this way. He knew he had to pull her aside and ask her what was going on, what was bothering her.
He finished setting up his tent, which he and Ludmila had planned to share, and walked over to where she was standing, staring blankly out into the woods.
“Lud”, Igor said gently, and he placed his hand on her shoulder. She didn’t move, so he did. When he was facing her, he looked her in her eyes and said, “Lud” again, this time a little louder. She didn’t even flinch. She just kept staring, listlessly out into the nothingness. It was dark already. There was no way she could be looking at anything in particular.
“Ludmila!” He exclaimed finally. This time, she shifted her eyes and looked at him, and it felt like she was looking into him. She seemed vacant, empty, gone. He shuddered. “Lud, what’s wrong? Why aren’t you talking to me? What’s happened?”
The stoic girl just stared at him. His frustration began to turn to panic and his mind raced, looking for explanations for why she and Yuri were behaving this way. Maybe something happened to Vlad, he thought. Maybe if he asked her about Vlad, he would get a reaction.
“Lud, how was Vlad when you left him?”
Ludmila shifted on her feet and blurted, “Dysentery”. Igor was startled by her willingness to respond to a question finally, but before he could follow it up with any others, she had turned and started walking toward their tent. He watched her as she opened the tent flaps and climbed in, disappearing inside. When he got there after her, she was already wrapped in a sleeping bag, eyes closed. He climbed in after her, stripped down to his long underwear, climbed into his sleeping bag and fell asleep.
It was sometime in the middle of the night and he had been woken by what sounded like at least 4 tuba players in the woods playing a single note, rising and lowering in volume and then again, the same note played loud and the fading off to nothing. Again and again and again. He could hear gear rattling in his pack and outside the tent, vibrating from the deep, ominous sound.
As his eyes adjusted to being open he looked at Ludmila to see if the sound had woken her too. He couldn’t see anything, so he felt around where she had been sleeping. All he felt was an empty sleeping bag.
Maybe she’s further over, He thought, feeling around now for his torch. When his fingers finally fumbled over the flashlight, he grabbed it and turned it on. Pointing it at Ludmila’s side of the tent, horror washed over him. She wasn’t there. Where was she? He began to scramble out of his sleeping bag and throw on his clothes. His heart was pounding, and in a panic he hurried to lace up his boots, throw on his gloves and find a hat.
He forced open the tent and ran out, the beam of his flashlight bouncing around violently in the darkness. Finally still, he steadied his light. Methodically, he scanned the the camp with it and noticed a second tent was open, too. He pointed his beam toward the snow in front of the open tent, and sure enough there were fresh tracks leading away from it.
Where are they? He could barely hear his own thoughts over the deep, horn-like sounds rattling through their camp.
“What’s going on?” Alexander had popped his head out of his tent.
Slowly the other tents started to open and soon enough, their entire hiking party was standing in the darkness together.
“What’s that sound?” Zinaida asked, the fact that she was crying was obvious from the sound of her shaky voice. Rustem put his arm around her for comfort.
Igor began to scan the surrounding forest with his torch, but its distance was limited. He took a few steps outside of their camp, as he swung his light beam from left to right. Slowly, he made his way further and further from the group. After another few steps, he heard Zinaida yell, “Igor!” and he turned to see if he could make her out. She followed it up with a panicked, “Look!” and he turned to look in the direction of his light. There, in the beam of light, stood Ludmila and Yuri, shoeless and dressed only in their long underwear, side by side, motionless and blank. They were staring off to the side of the camp, where the chorus of horns was coming from. They suddenly turned, in perfect time with each other, and cast their gaze on Igor, who, in absolute terror, had tried to step backward and stumbled, landing on his tailbone. At that exact moment, the horrendous sound came to an abrupt end.
“What should we do?” Rustem asked, his face tight with worry. He and Igor had briefly left camp in search of more firewood. “We can’t go on with them like this. What if they need medical attention?”
The night before had certainly made Igor question the exact same things. After the horrendous sound had stopped, Yuri and Ludmila walked back to their respective tents like nothing was out of the ordinary. Eventually, the rest of their expedition party followed suit, too tired and unable to process what had just occurred to have dealt with it then. While Igor had tossed and turned for the remainder of the night, he came to a conclusion: they had to turn back.
“You’re right. I think it would best for us all if we turned back”, it hurt just saying it. The last year of Igor’s life was wrapped up in this trip. Ending it now was heartbreaking, but seeing Ludmila the way she was now, was even more heartbreaking. “Let’s tell the others”
The two turned back slowly, in a somber silence. Each crunch of their feet in the snow ringing out through the forest as though there was nothing and no one else there. They arrived at camp a moment later and called everyone in around the fire. Igor tossed a piece of birch into its center, and sparks suddenly drifted upward toward the cloudy sky they had woken up to. All eyes were on Igor as he began, with the exception of Yuri and Ludmila, who stared out toward the forest, at what appeared to be absolutely nothing.
“I’m sure that after last night you all realize that something is not right with our group here. Although no one seems hurt, and no one’s lives are in danger, and our weather has, until this very moment, been spectacular, there is something wrong. The fact that we can’t put our fingers on what exactly it is, is even more unsettling.” Igor paused and his eyes glistened. “I have thought about this all night and it absolute pains me to say, but I think we need to head back. I think we need to find Lud and Yuri some real rest and a doctor.” He said, hanging his head. “I hope that whatever is happening, is easily fixed with proper rest and nutrition and that we can start our trek again during the May holidays” Igor looked up to see the reactions of his fellow travelers.
“Agreed.” Nicholai offered with a nod.
Zinaida grabbed Igor’s hand, “Yep, the right decision.”
“So, we are all in agreement? Raise your hand.” Rustem looked around at the arms in the air. “Anyone vote no?” He waited. No one budged. “Seven yeses, and two undecided.” He counted, lightening the mood. A couple of the hikers chuckled under their breath.
“Ok, so we are less than a day away from Vizhai; an easy trek back. I say we try to make it there today. If we have to trek the last few miles through the dark, then that’s what we have to do. We all okay with that?” Igor tried to wrap up their little meeting. There were no objections. “Right, let’s get moving.” He said, clapping his gloved hands.