Updated: Mar 1, 2021
I shall not attempt to conceal the depth of my dread upon receiving your letter. The fact that you have come to know my name, and to know of my involvement in the incident to which your letter refers, causes me a great deal of consternation. I have made considerable effort over the years to hide my presence at the event.
I have heard of you, of your position and some tales of your capabilities. I therefore find myself obliged to believe that you could easily follow through on your thinly veiled threats. You should know, however, that there is not much left that can frighten me after that day.
As you have evidently ascertained, I was indeed in Vizhai when the hikers passed through. I was spending some time there incognito, so to speak, following a small misunderstanding with the authorities back at home. I was not previously acquainted with the group but we chanced to meet during the purchasing of supplies and I found them friendly and forthcoming. Their little expedition seemed an enjoyable one to me, though I lacked their experience in mountaineering and the like.
I was uncertain whether to join them or not, and this hesitancy initially led me to start out on my own journey alone. I travelled a somewhat parallel route, albeit with a different destination, but I found myself oddly drawn to that intriguingly determined little party and so I eventually changed my mind and my path. They had taken the first part of their journey at a gentle pace and I was able to catch up with them in the highland area around, I believe, the 31st.
The two female members of the group, Lyudmilla and Zinaida, seemed pleased to have more company and the group as a whole welcomed me as a friend. It warmed my heart. After all, I had no idea what was to come.
The first sign that the journey would not be all that we had hoped was the worsening weather conditions. Sharp snowstorms obscured our visibility and, as a less experienced hiker, I found this quite disconcerting. The rest of them were made of sturdier stuff and were even unfazed upon finding that we had deviated from our path and become a little lost. Consulting the map, we located ourselves not far from the top of the Kholat and decided that we should set up camp. Igor insisted that it would be good to practise slope camping and no one was willing to lose the height that we had conquered.
Oh, that we had been more cautious, been less eager.
Despite the presence of women in the group, we shared one tent between ten of us. Practicality was far more important, in the circumstances, than propriety. It was actually Lyudmilla that woke up first that night. Her movement awakened me.
“Can you hear that, Veta?” She asked, and the concern in her voice made me hesitate.
For several moments in the silence of the night all I could hear was the gentle breathing of our companions. And then…
There was a crunch of snow outside and a sharp noise, like the heavy breath of a large animal. A bear perhaps, although we were unaware of anything like it in the area. Lyudmilla and I froze, our eyes locked together and then she reached over and gripped Igor’s arm. His eyes opened blearily and focussed on us, and I saw his expression grow puzzled as he watched me press a finger to my lips. He sat up carefully and stared at us, a question on his face. In response, I pointed to where the sound seemed to be coming from.
It was closer now. Whatever it was seemed to have its face pressed against the sides of the tent and I could hear it sniffing along the bottom of the material. I was aware of the others awakening and slowly sitting up, their bodies still and silent as they heard the thing outside investigating us.
I don’t know what we all felt at the moment. There was some fear, certainly, but perhaps not terror. A large animal does not necessarily mean a predator and our tent was rather sturdy. I caught Igor’s eye and his calmness soothed me. The thing outside was moving around towards the front of the tent, towards the opening that was securely tied.
And then came the noise. Oh god, the noise.
I can’t fully describe it. Something like a scream, but furious. Somehow high and shrieking and yet rumbling with some much lower tone that shook the ground beneath us. There were cries of fear within the group and we grasped at each other.
To my left, absolutely terrified, Yuri snatched a knife out of his bag and slashed at the side of the tent. The slit he made was easily big enough for him to fit through and he vanished out of it, followed quickly by Georgiy. As the thing outside pushed against the front of the tent, the rest of us surged forward towards this escape route. In our panic, we briefly bottlenecked at the opening, whilst behind us that awful roar grew louder. Then we were free, fleeing down the slopes towards the nearest shelter we could find.
The shadow of a treeline, just close enough to make out in the twilight, was the only cover to be had. I wasn’t sure how long we ran for, freezing and terrified, and certain of pursuit, but after what seemed like an eternity we saw the woods looming over us and we barrelled in.
We scrambled, breathless, into the bushes and up trees, trying to make each other out in the darkness, and to see if the creature had followed.
The woods were silent, and I think we all dared to hope that we had escaped. But any sense of elation was quickly dashed by the reality of our situation – we were outside in the freezing cold, most of us without even shoes, with no clear way to find our way back in the dark to our belongings.
We cowered there for some time before we realised that we were going to have to at least to attempt to return back the way we came. Creature or no creature, the conditions forced our hand. Georgiy and Yuri were already beginning to show the first signs of hypothermia. I heard Zinaida shushing Yuri, who was shaking violently and hissing about his bare feet.
There were hushed discussions of starting a fire but we feared that it would bring the creature back to us. Igor decided that the rest of us would stay in the woods whilst he, Zinaida and Rustem attempted to find the tent and return with clothing and provisions.
We never saw them again.
After several hours, Nikolai insisted that we needed to start a small fire if we didn’t want to lose Yuri and Georgiy. They were huddled at the bottom of a pine tree, deathly pale. Yuri had already tried to remove his clothes once, though Lyudmilla had managed to stop him. We collected firewood but managed nothing more than a sputtering failure. After Yuri suddenly jerked his leg, knocking the fire out and singeing his trousers in the process, we gave up.
Of course you have to be practical in these circumstances, you see, so when Yuri and Georgiy were seen to not need their clothing any longer, we took whatever we could use. Their troubles were over.
It was Alexander who first suggested that Igor and the others would not be returning and that if we wanted to survive this we would need to set out ourselves. Those of us that remained – myself, Lyudmilla, Nikolai and Semyon – had to agree. We were on our own.
We moved out as carefully and quietly as we could, intending to follow in the footsteps of Igor and the others and make our way back to the tent. We stayed close together, our eyes wide as we stared out into the darkness. It soon became apparent that we had already lost our way when the faint moonlight spilled out from behind a cloud and shone down upon a gaping ravine that none of us could remember seeing in our flight down to the relative safety of the woods.
“Should we turn back?” Alexander whispered.
But before we could answer, Nikolai glanced behind us and let out an awful cry. No one looked back to see what he had seen - we had a good idea after all - instead we immediately ran as fast as we could away from it. In his panic, Nikolai stumbled the wrong way and I saw him disappear over the nearby edge. Lyudmilla screamed and immediately changed course onto a path that led towards the ravine and down, perhaps hoping that he could somehow be saved. Semyon, Alexander and I followed her – there was nowhere to hide up here.
We slipped and skidded our way down to the creek at the bottom but there was no time to look for Nikolai. The creature had followed us. We could hear its rapid footsteps and its rumbling growl. I tried to sneak a look over my shoulder as I ran but could only make out a shadowy form in the darkness. Our group scattered, each of us trying to make it to different cover. I saw Lyudmilla head towards a group of boulders, whilst I lunged for a large shrub growing stubbornly by the freezing water. I didn’t see where Alexander went.
Once hidden, I turned to see if the creature had seen me, if it might perhaps even now be bearing down on me. But it was not.
Semyon had slipped in the water and was trying to drag himself away. I could hear his whimpering cries from where I hid. I could also see the creature clearly for the first time.
It was tall and thin, human-like I guess, but wrong in too many ways. In the moonlight I could make out unnaturally long limbs and jutting bones. Its face wasn’t too clear, though it seemed to have dark holes where eyes and a mouth might be. It was bearing down on Semyon, who had twisted round to face his attacker. He was a brave man.
The thing leaned down towards him… and screamed. The noise was worse than before, again with that strange union of high and low frequencies. I saw Semyon’s face contort in pain, and then I looked away, squeezing my eyes tightly shut.
I heard a dull crack, like the crunch of bones, and then… silence.
Carefully, I looked out. Semyon was slumped back in the water. I had no doubt that he was dead. The creature was standing where I had seen it last, with its back to me. It was unnaturally still. I glanced over to the patch of boulders where Lyudmilla had concealed herself and saw her peering out as I was, her eyes fixed on the monster. I realised immediately that she intended to run – her cover was not as good as mine, and it was quite apparent that if the creature turned her way she would not be hidden. She moved slowly back.
Either the creature had preternatural hearing, or some other unknown sense. It turned immediately, those dark holes of eyes seeking Lyudmilla out. She screamed and turned to run but it moved so fast, those freakish limbs eating up the ground between them, its spidery hands grabbing her arms and pulling her up in the air. For a second it just stared at her face as she writhed in its grip and then it gave its banshee wail.
This time I didn’t look away. Sheer terror has purged much of what I saw from my mind but, before I fainted, I remember seeing her eyes, and how they poured down her face…
How I survived until the morning I’ll never know. Three fingers and most of my toes were the price I paid to the cold. I was luckier, though, than Alexander who I found further down the creek. He was frozen, face down in the water as it lapped gently against him. There was no sign of the creature.
I made no attempt to return to the tent. I would most likely have perished like my companions had I not stumbled by blind chance upon a somewhat shocked tribe of Mansi, who saved my life and to whom I am forever indebted.
Until today, I have never shared this story. My fugitive status would have made me unwilling to reveal my involvement, even if the story had not been so unbelievable and the government so eager to cover it up...
However, my reticence is mostly because I do not wish to relive it. I have such nightmares as it is. Visions of the creature, of Lyudmilla’s face and of the details that I only learned of later from the subsequent investigations. Their families don’t need to know what truly occurred. Better to let them believe that it was just an unfortunate accident.
I know enough of your reputation, Doktor, not to appeal to your kindness but I am an old woman now, and unlikely to see many more summers. I only ask that you keep this account hidden until I am no longer around to confirm or deny it. You would be fulfilling a great wish.
Let the world go on without knowing that there was a tenth member of the expedition. It has passed into legend without me. Let the dead rest, Doktor.
From what I know of you, I fear that my pleas fall on deaf ears.