Liz came upon the little camp shortly after their departure, coals still slightly warm to the touch though clearly dead for some time, not appearing as fresh as the tracks which took off up the hill away from the spot. A single set of tracks, Juni’s, and pausing to follow them with her eyes she wondered what could have happened to Einar. Up until encountering the rockslide she had been following both sets of tracks, had temporarily lost them in the rocks and had altogether abandoned the search of them when she’d smelled smoke, hoping to find the two of them together near the fire. Too much for which to hope, clearly, and in searching the area around the camp, widening circles slowly walked, she discovered that Einar had never allowed himself near the fire, at all, but had sat long and unmoving in the snow some distance above it, watching. She could see him as he would have been, stone-still and staring as he sat there and froze, did not wonder too greatly at the circumstances, as it was like him to remain at times separate in such a way, but she did wonder somewhat how he was managing to do it, to rise and continue after such a time of stillness in the snow. Especially considering his condition over the past several days. Well. No sense in wondering such things. He did it, she knew from long observation, because he was convinced that he must, and would keep on his present course until he had accomplished whatever his mind told him he’d set out to accomplish—or fallen in the snow unable to rise. It was simply the way he lived. Not a tremendously cheerful picture, and—seeing now two sets of tracks once again where they had crossed a patch of deeper snow above the little camp—she increased her own speed, hoping soon to overtake them and see what she might do to improve the situation for all involved. If he would let her.
Sunset. It had, he could see, already overtaken the basin, shadows creeping up the timbered slope below them and soon the entire ridge would be in shadow, night on its way. A fine thing, for he had plans for the dark hours, and he glanced back to see that Juni was still following, spotted her there not quite a quarter mile behind, picking her way up yet another slope of mixed granite slab and stunted spruce, moving quickly and with a determination which told him he’d better pick up his own pace, if he intended long to keep ahead. Easier said than done, weariness hitting him like a wall when he resumed climbing, legs leaden and unwilling. He made them move anyway, carry him up over the remaining rocks and into a small stand of trees beyond, glancing back for a glimpse of Juni and finding himself unable to get one.
Something not right down there, feeling more than fact, for he could hear nothing out of the ordinary, wind sighing over stone and through the twisted forms of timber eeking out an existence at altitudes very nearly higher than those at which timber was capable of surviving, no sound or sight to lend credence to his concern, yet it was there, that undefinable something, and it worried him. Wanted to know more. But must not stop long enough to make its discovery, for she was coming. He resumed his climb. Might well be nothing. Brain playing tricks on him. Next goal, that irregularly-shaped old carcass of a burnt-out limber pine which stood black and stark against a sky grown nearly purple in its intense blue clarity as the sun began sinking nearer the horizon, and the thing danced before his vision as he climbed, blackened limbs seeming to move as if animated with some strange form of life, raking the sky, seeking, searching, but before reaching the tree, fascinated and afraid, drawn to its tortured, twisted form, he managed to realize that the illusion of movement was of his own creation, a product of the growing dizziness in his silly head.
Still a fascinating sight, and there beneath the hulking remains of that long-dead tree—why had it grown so large at such an elevation? No others had done so—he paused, panting, leaning hard on his atlatl, nearly doubled over in a struggle for breath, blackness slowly clearing from before his eyes and the world once more becoming visible. There it was again, that faint echo of something through the pounding and the chaos in his head, and this time he was sure it was real, not merely a product of his own growing exhaustion. Something—or someone—was coming. Someone other than Juni, whose approaching form he could clearly make out as she climbed, and he squinted down at the surrounding masses of timber, at the open rockslides which slashed vertically across its blackness and, seeing nothing out of the ordinary, closed his eyes and tested the breeze, listening, trying to catch any scent which might give away the source of his unease, but there was nothing. Time to move, then, before the girl got too much closer. Wouldn’t do to let her catch up. If she caught up, she would almost certainly start talking again, and the last thing he needed was her constant stream of editorializing, even if he had managed to grow a bit more used to her, of late. She just didn’t know when to stop, and he recalled with an annoyance bordering on the beginnings of rage their last exchange, she trying, with no right or reason whatsoever, to stake some claim to him and to the way he lived his life. Well. Would be no more of that. By the time he did stop and allow her to catch up again, she would be so thoroughly worn out that speech, he could only hope, would be entirely out of the question.
Swiftly, nimbly as he was able, Einar pushed ahead for the ridge’s summit, then only some fifteen hundred feet above him in elevation, and far less than half a mile distant, leaving the going tremendously steep and at times precarious, last brittle, slanting rays of the dying sun glancing from snow-damp rock surfaces to dazzle his eyes in a brilliant and final farewell for the evening. Though subdued some by the difficulty of the ascent, he was still dogged by the unshakable feeling that he and Juni were not alone up there, were themselves being stalked by some malignant and inexorable force which, if left undiscovered and unchecked, would surely apprehend and destroy them before the night was out. Though logic told him otherwise, he was compelled to consider the possibility that the reporter had, through some means un-guessed at by him, managed to contact someone associated with the search, summoning them to what could only be described as the perfect situation from which to extract his capture—unarmed, alone and exhausted near the ridgetop at dusk, no recourse but to run when their chopper popped up from behind the crest and running, itself, almost certainly a fatal endeavor given the peril of the terrain… So ideal was the scenario thus woven in his mind that he very nearly convinced himself of its likelihood, might then have given up his goal of making the ridge crest entirely and gone another way in an attempt to confuse his pursuers, had he not still possessed just enough rationality in his cold and weary brain to realize that the chances of her having been able to contact someone on the outside, while on their present expedition with only what precious little gear he had allowed her to bring, were slim to none, at best. Continue. He would continue, and did.
Nightfall, and Juni, though she had recently been only yards behind, was nowhere to be seen. Plan not working, student failing, and that wouldn’t do, but when he turned back in search of her, stalking slowly—it was the only way he could move at the moment, all stiff and still with cold, though of course he would not admit to himself this fact, insisting that the pace was strictly voluntary, a function of his need to approach undetected—silently, he was brought up short by the unmistakable sound of voices.