The Lady in Fire

A Tale of Tyranny and Vengeance

- February 2023 Popular Vote Pick

Bullets whizzed past the hunter’s head as he fled amongst the surrounding snow.

The man could feel his calves becoming numb with each passing step, all the while he heard the voices of several Soviet soldiers coming from behind. There was one of them who now spoke louder than the rest, enough so that even he could hear the Russian’s words.

“Stop your firing!” the voice ordered under a tone of authority. “He has nowhere to go. Let the snowstorm claim him!”

The conversation continued, though Suluk could hear little more of what was being said. For a moment he briefly considered turning back, as facing a rising blizzard in the Alaskan countryside was sure to be suicide. However, those Russians were still on high alert, and returning to Blackwater now would have yielded an even worse fate.

Even in his short time there he had already witnessed the punishments which only a refinery town could have reserved, the most notable of which being a dousing in oil before being set on fire.

Indeed, it was a most grisly sight to behold, and Suluk would have encountered the exact same fate had he not succeeded in escaping.

Thus he plodded endlessly forward. His breath came forth in labored gasps, which immediately crystallized in the air before him upon each exhale.

Damn it, it was cold. Yet he could not stop now if he hoped to survive.

Several more minutes passed before his adrenaline ultimately subsided, which then gave way to exhaustion. Suluk’s legs finally buckled out from underneath him, his hands and feet crashing into the icy snow below. It was obvious that most of his extremities had been rendered useless by the biting cold. Even for one like him who was used to traveling in the tundra, it was still pure agony to strike forward, to brave the cold in search of food and shelter.

Again he briefly considered turning back. His mind returned to that ruthless commander who had wronged his people in the past. Even now he wished that he could throttle Commander Mikhail where he stood… the smug bastard. Still, he was unarmed and alone, and it was only through blind, dumb luck that he had even survived at all.

There was nothing for it now. Suluk would have to find some place to hide, somewhere to rest and recuperate, before languishing any longer on his thoughts for revenge.

Thus, with a hint of reluctance, he stood up and resumed his pace, the wind numbing both his nose and lips as the frost chipped away at his skin. The beaten highway loomed close before him all the while it was obscured by snow. The blizzard had intensified just within a moment’s notice, and it wasn’t long before even Suluk could see little of anything surrounding him.

He knew well that the nearest neighboring town was still miles away. His only remaining hope now was that of an outpost that the guards had mentioned in passing. It was just a rumor, though it was said that the place imparted both medicine and food to those living underneath Mikhail and his men. In spite of the Soviets’ efforts, only so much could even be gleaned about the place. It didn’t help that the outpost had held some sort of religious significance to the natives, which only triggered the odd uprising when their people were interrogated about it.

Perhaps there was even some validity to those beliefs… even to one such as Suluk, who was half-Inuit, half-Russian.

He felt along the stolen coat he wore about his person, suddenly remembering the circumstances of how he had escaped. Following his own failed assassination attempt against that commander, the hunter had been locked in a cell without any trace of food nor water. His only hope then had come in the form of a small box with a single match—clearly meant as a joke by his captors as a means of drawing out his inevitable fate. Even so, it was obvious that they hadn’t factored in him escaping, not when he had been stripped of all his belongings.

Even he wasn’t entirely sure on how he had done it, only that he remembered a lady standing before him, one who was shrouded in flames and charred to her very bones. Of course, it had been a hallucination borne from his deprived sense of heat, coupled with his own fear of being torched by the Soviets. Even so, he could still remember her scarred, yet beautiful face, not to mention how she had opened his cell door without any effort.

Still, it wasn’t long before he was caught by the man who patrolled those cells. He could still remember choking the man barehanded, which gave him just enough time to grab some much-needed clothes before escaping, his eyes instinctively following those scorched prints left behind by his imaginary savior.

Everything after that was simply a blur. Yet none of it mattered now, as he could already sense that the frostbite was getting to him. He couldn’t even feel his own faculties anymore, only the vague plodding of one foot after another as he trudged aimlessly forward. And even that was quickly fading into obscurity.

His muscles were spasming all over as his breathing constricted. It wasn’t long after that that he fell to the snowy ground, his mind temporarily blacking out from the sheer strain of it all. There was nothing more to be felt aside from a vague warmness at the very core of his chest. Clearly, he was at death’s doorstep, and he knew all-too-well that this was his body’s last resort at retaining some semblance of heat.

It was then that he fainted once more. However, not before he caught the glimpse of a shimmering, flaming figure moving towards him.

A deathly cold enraptured Suluk’s body when he next awoke. Weakly moving his head from one side to another, he noticed that he was now within some sort of cavern made of solid rock. A fire burned brightly at his side, and every part of his body (save for his head) was covered in several layers of blankets.

Still, his body tingled as if it were directly in contact with ice.

“Ah! You are awake.” The words met his ears, echoing around in his skull as if it were hollow like this cave. A hand was then lowered in front of his face, which held a mug of piping hot coffee. Just the bitter aroma itself imbued Suluk with a renewed vitality.

At first he could only drink in small gulps. He coughed dryly, his mouth, throat, and insides being warmed by the rejuvenating beverage.

“Where… am I?” he asked, his voice still sounding somewhat weak.

“You are nowhere important,” the man replied. “Just rest assured that you are now safe. You were lucky I found you when I was returning here, myself. Otherwise, you would have surely been killed by that blizzard. I can only imagine it will be some time before your body is healed.” He winced, looking along the terrible wounds which Suluk didn’t see so much as feel. “What is your name?” he asked.

“Suluk,” he replied. “Suluk Baelyev. I am a hunter, and I was just passing through when I was captured by those Soviet guards.”

“Really?” The other sat in place, his necklace of bone fetishes jingling along with the realization. “It’s been so long since anyone has escaped that wretched town. Most who resist the Soviets now are simply killed in return.

“I guess I should also introduce myself. My name is Meriwa.” He smiled. “Tell me, what was the reason for you being captured? You said you were only just passing through…”

The man made no response.

“So that’s how you are going to play it? Well, if I’m being honest, most of us have had our dealings with the Soviet Union in the past—or what’s left of it anyway. Certainly, it’s difficult to make an honest living when you are constantly being reminded about the means of production. Indeed, it’s a most tiresome ordeal for an old soul like myself.”

“So how did you cross the Soviets in town?” Suluk asked.

“It was easy. I’m a shaman who represents the old ways—more accurately I’m an angakkuq, or medicine man for my people. Yet it did not take them long to see me as a hindrance to progress. One of my duties was to ward off evil spirits using these sacred charms you see here. Only they didn’t take so kindly to the idea. Thankfully, I was permitted to leave on the condition that I never returned.”

“Only there was a price,” said Suluk. “Wasn’t there?”

This time it was Meriwa who remained silent.

“It seems we both have our secrets then,” Suluk nodded. “Allow me to break the ice. I came here seeking a man who has wronged my people. He destroyed my family when I was only a young man, who was preoccupied with fighting off the Soviets along the front lines. That was before the atomic bombs dropped and the rest of the world was left a scorching ruin. He is much older now, and his influence (so I’m told) is spoken of frequently by his men. It seems he hasn’t lost his edge in the slightest, the vicious bastard.”

“You are referring to Commander Mikhail, yes?” inquired the healer.

“The very same. If I wasn’t caught earlier and stuck in that freezing jail cell, then I would have killed him without question. However, he must have seen me coming, for several of his men had jumped me whenever I came to do the deed. I would have been doused and burned, too, if it had not been for those weird hallucinations of mine…”

“And what hallucinations were those?”

The hunter pondered for a moment. “It was a woman covered in flames,” he said. “Somehow after I realized that my cell was unlocked. Perhaps one of the guards had left it open? I do not know. There was also a name given by it, one which I had never heard spoken before.”

“Oh? And what was this name?”

“Ila,” he replied. “She told me her name was Ila.”

The shaman only furrowed his brow as he went silent. To Suluk it seemed as if the man had formulated some theory without even speaking it. Yet there was no indication that Meriwa would tell him anything.

“Is everything alright?”

“It is nothing,” he said. “You should gather your strength. I will divulge my secrets in time, but for now my healing you will simply have to do. It will still be some time before your body heals from that frostbite. Then we shall see how you might achieve your vengeance.”

At this the hunter only smiled.

The angakkuq was soon proved correct in his assertion. Though Suluk had survived due to little more than just luck, his body had still paid the price for its overexertion. Now the process of healing was both painful and taxing to his strength. Steamed towels were frequently applied to those areas of skin which were most affected. Several months passed before his wounds were finally healed, though there were still some of his muscles that had been atrophied.

He was still a little stiff in places; however his zest for life had largely returned and then some, all thanks to the help of his friend.

Meanwhile, the hunter came to learn much concerning his companion and Blackwater as a whole. At one time their nomadic tribe was even considered quite the peaceful one, trading pelts, charms, and the like with others. That is, it had been before they settled near an abundant oil reserve. Word spread quickly amongst those whom they traded with, and it wasn’t long before the remnants of the Soviet Union were involved.

But now their reign was soon to be at an end. Both Suluk and Meriwa departed from that cave, taking what few weapons they still had from their little outpost. Unfortunately, this had been much less than even the hunter had hoped. Still, Suluk was able to find a hunting knife, along with a basic 9mm pistol equipped with a few rounds.

There was that much, at least.

They now stopped mid-stride, looking down towards that distant town on the horizon. Suluk realized that he was a little sore from his wounds. However, he would simply have to make do if he hoped to succeed.

“This is a place infested with evil spirits,” murmured the angakkuq, now wrapping his furs more tightly about himself.

“Don’t be discouraged—just stick to the plan and you will be fine. You do remember your role, don’t you?”

“Do not worry about me,” he said. “Just focus on helping out my people and I will hold to my end of the bargain.”

“Good,” Suluk nodded. They were now coming closer to the edge of town. “I wish you the best of luck, then. And again, thank you.”

“You can thank me later with a bottle of vodka—once we’ve both survived, that is.”

However, the hunter had already disappeared behind those hills of rolling white. Meriwa sighed as he stepped between two buildings, emerging along the main street of the town. At first it seemed that no one would notice him until he took a few steps further. A couple of faces turned in his direction, then a few more after. It was clear that though the people were still enslaved by the Soviets, there was some measure of respect they held for the old ways.

“I come to speak with Commander Mikhail,” he said, now raising his voice suddenly. “I simply cannot stand by any longer and witness my people’s suffering! In exchange, I can give you my life along with that of Suluk Baelyev. Oh yes, I know of your old rival. I found him in the snow when he was on the brink of death! It was I, too, who nursed him back to health! Now he is my prisoner. If you want him dead, then you will speak with me now!”

It did not take long for several Soviet soldiers to gather around him. Even so, he held his expression despite those who looked upon him with disdain. Eventually there came a man who was both tall and lean of frame, though a closer inspection showed that he wasn’t weak in the slightest.

The man removed his beret as he sauntered on forth, his own mustachioed lips tugging into a grin. “So I see you’re not dead after all. I must admit that you are most cunning, Meriwa, to pull a trick like this. Indeed, I thought our little incident from a few years ago might have taught you a lesson, yet I see that was not the case.”

Meriwa held his position. “If you harm me now, then you will never know whether your little assassin is dead or not.”

“It does not matter. He may come again, but I will always be here with a number of soldiers at my side.” He then gestured around him with a sneer.

“From what I heard the man escaped easily enough. Are you sure that he could not elude you again?”

The Soviet raised an eyebrow. “It was a mere oversight,” he said. “Besides, the next time we catch him he will be publicly executed here on the spot. Does that make my stance any clearer?”

“And what if that doesn’t happen?” parried the shaman. “You underestimated your opponent before. Who’s to say you will not do so again?”

A long silence followed before the commander made his reply. He was clearly furious; his eyes said as much. “Very well,” he said. “As a capitalist would say, let us bargain.”

All the while Suluk ventured on from behind. The snow provided suitable cover for his flowing white jacket, as the winds obscured any sign of his passing.

He eventually found himself along the backside of that refinery. A few minutes before he would have surely been seen by the two Soviets patrolling this section of the wall. However, they had both turned aside now, being evidently distracted by some commotion within town. He could only hope that Meriwa’s ruse was working as intended.

Thus Suluk used this to his advantage, as he took what vital seconds he had in order to vault over the wall in question. His wiry muscles strained as he heaved topside, now diving closer to the nearest guard. He removed his own hunting knife and slit the man’s throat without so much as a sound.

The hunter then turned to the remaining soldier just across from him. Bringing up his knife, he launched it towards the base of the man’s neck.

There was a faint gurgling sound, all before the soldier slumped to the metal flooring.

That was two down, he thought.

Now searching the corpse next to him, he found a PPSh gun along with a circular magazine. He pocketed what spare ammo he could find whilst also retrieving the hunting knife from the other body.

He stole forward, killing several more soldiers in likewise manner, before ultimately spotting a warehouse not too far ahead. He could also see a few natives (judging by their clothes) working near its entrance, hauling several barrels of oil into a nearby truck. Suluk could only surmise that this was where the majority of oil was being held.

The walkways themselves spanned between a number of silos, thus serving as the only real cover from being spotted. So it was that the hunter kept low as he moved forward at a quick pace. Even from this distance he could still hear the faint conversation going on between Commander Mikhail and the angakkuq. Normally, he would have preferred facing the man himself. Still there was a job for him to do. Not to mention that this would remove most of the Russians, along with putting a severe damper on oil production for some time to come.

Now rounding another silo, he found himself face-to-face with a dark and shadowy figure. Suluk instinctively raised his weapon, and was about to strike before he noticed that the man was a fellow Inuit.

“Please! Don’t kill me…” the man quivered.

“If you wish to see your family freed,” Suluk said, now lowering his knife, “then you will do exactly as I say. Take whatever men you can find and pick up those weapons behind me. Stay here and keep to yourselves. On my signal, you will open fire against both Mikhail and his troops. Do I make myself perfectly clear?”

The man nodded. “But what will be the signal?”

“Trust me, you will know.” Suluk then goaded the man forward as they both stepped beside one another. The catwalk was now leading into the second floor of that warehouse. The hunter stepped warily, yet he was calmed somewhat by the steady gait of his companion.

“There aren’t any Soviets inside,” murmured the Inuit, “at least not for the moment.”

“Perfect,” the other spoke. He could now see that heaps of barrels were being stacked one on top of the other. Indeed, it was enough fuel to make any one man rich for the rest of his days.

Only this had been taken by the Soviets.

Suluk’s companion then departed, bringing about those other workers and returning to his side. “Remember the signal,” Suluk reminded, though it was plainly obvious that they were all aware of what they had to do.

Now descending a nearby staircase, leaving the workers to spread out and fend for themselves, he pulled forth one of the barrels, opening the cap. Though it proved somewhat heavy to operate at first, the hunter found that his job was much easier when he turned the container on its side, rolling it out through the front entrance. A trail of black fluid leaked from behind… A perfect fuse!

Suluk couldn’t help but chuckle somewhat as he produced the matchbox from his pocket. There was still the single match inside, and the irony of it being given to him by his enemies did not escape him.

That was when a couple soldiers emerged from the driver’s seat of the nearest vehicle. Both sides were almost immediately caught by surprise, though the hunter was still faster on the draw, leveling his PPSh against them.

They only managed to fire off a couple shots before they were blown to smithereens.

So much for subtlety, he mused. His hands trembled slightly as again he held the match, now striking the flame and tossing it along the trail of oil.

He could now hear several more gunshots being trained in his direction, all the while he bolted from where he stood. It wouldn’t have surprised him if he had only just fled the jaws of death by a razor-thin margin. Still there was the explosion he was trying to escape… not to mention how he would handle dealing with Mikhail.

He dove inside another building. Then his ears were deafened by that horrendous, apocalyptic sound.

The very earth shook beneath him, threatening to split open into violent, powderized rubble with each passing second. The structure swayed as if it were being assaulted by an earthquake, and a number of large pieces dislodged themselves from the surrounding walls and ceiling. It was only by dumb luck that one of those chunks landed just shy of the hunter’s head; otherwise, he knew that his brains would have been crushed and splattered all over the floor.

Still, he had survived the explosion. He was alive for the moment, at least.

The earth finally ceased its rumbling, and Suluk found himself ducking behind a nearby counter as soldiers then descended from the adjacent stairs. It was now dawning on him that he had unwittingly stumbled into Blackwater’s own barracks. And what was more, the destruction of the warehouse had jostled them to full alertness.

Judging from their sounds he counted there being at least half-a-dozen of them. Needless to say he was easily outnumbered, yet at the least he still held the element of surprise. The footsteps were particularly close when he finally peered over the side of his cover, unleashing what remained of his ammo into those unsuspecting troops.

Luck must have been on his side that day, for nearly all of the soldiers were immediately caught within his firing range. Only one Soviet had just managed to escape death, though even he was heavily wounded from a stray bullet to the leg.

Yet Suluk did not hesitate. He charged forward with his hunting knife, stabbing the man straight through the heart with the edge of the blade.

The hunter sighed in relief, now regaining some of his senses. The sound of gunshots could still be heard from outside. Surely he imagined that it was the Inuits fighting their own little battles against the Soviets. Either that or Meriwa was putting up one hell of a resistance.

Suluk retrieved his knife from the corpse, the majority of his own body now being caked in crimson. Taking a few more magazines from his foes, he then stepped outside from the entrance of those barracks. Several clouds of smoke and dust obscured his vision. And it was only after several seconds that he spotted two silhouetted figures which were surrounded by several dozen more.

He was now in the center of town, the majority of the Russians now being slain from the combined efforts of both himself and those gun-toting Inuits. Out of the two dusty figures, he could now see that the first was Commander Mikhail, who was bloodied by those explosions that had blasted the better part of Blackwater into oblivion. His expression was now one of utter hatred, his eyes showing a cold malice whilst holding the captive shaman between his arms. A gun pointed itself at Meriwa’s head, all the while the commander’s finger was poised just a hair’s-width from the trigger.

“I should commend you for your ingenuity, Suluk. I am not usually one so easy to outwit, but your underhanded tactics certainly did the trick. However, it looks like your luck has finally run out.” His weapon, meanwhile, pressed only harder against his captive. “Your friend here is under my control now. Perhaps if you give yourself up, then I shall see to it that everyone else here stays alive.”

At this the hunter only smiled. “You overestimate your position, my friend. Your soldiers have all fled amidst the chaos of battle. Now it is only you and I, along with the villagers here at Blackwater, who remain.”

“If you truly value this man’s life,” defiantly growled the commander, “then you will let me leave here. Now—drop your weapon!”

Reluctantly, despite his better judgment, the man did just so.

“Now kick it away!”

Suluk did as he was instructed. Yet he noticed something strange as the angakkuq suddenly went still, his words sounding aloof whilst muttering aloud: “This is a place infested with evil spirits,” he said. “The spirits you, Mikhail, have killed in order to keep your control. The time has now come for retribution, and you must reap what you have sown!”

“Ha!” the man interjected. “You superstitious madman! Your phony spirits will not save you now. I am the only one who’s in control here!”

However, that was when a fiery hand had gripped him by the shoulder, pulling him off to one side. The Soviet officer screamed from the sudden shock of it all, reeling in horror as the scorched feminine face stared with coal-black eyes.

It was that same lady of fire Suluk had seen. Now she had returned, and he realized that she wasn’t actually a hallucination after all!

He also saw that Mikhail was now bursting into flames, as if he had been doused under a torrent of invisible flaming liquid. The man howled in agony whilst flailing his arms wildly about, even as Meriwa ducked to one side out of mortal fear.

Meanwhile, Suluk stood there in bewilderment, utterly stupefied at the spectacle he was now witnessing. His senses returned to him, however, when he noticed that his foe was lunging towards him. He withdrew his remaining 9mm pistol and shot point-blank. The commander’s brains blew out from the other side, his body slumping to the ground as a lifeless, charred corpse.

Suluk then turned to his side, now sighing in relief as the lady in fire had again disappeared.

“Are you alright,” he asked, his words sounding less like a question and more a statement.

“I’ll live,” replied the angakkuq. After a few moments of catching their breaths, they both stepped closer to the remains of what had been their enemy. The shouts of victory rang out from only a few among those villagers, as the reign of communism had finally ended in their small settlement.

However, there were still those who held fast to their fear, being utterly frightened at what had just happened.

“I must be going crazy,” announced Suluk, shaking his head. “That was the same woman I had seen during my time in jail. Surely she could not have been real. It just isn’t possible…”

“My friend,” replied Meriwa, “we live in a time where the ideas of magic and science are once again blurred. Even the old ways of logic and reason only went so far towards answering our own existential questions, and look at where that got us. Who knows what is now possible in this new and strange world?”

The hunter merely shook his head. “I-I still cannot believe it. She was a woman covered in flames, who behaved as if she were reaching from beyond the grave.”

“If it helps, my friend, know that I also recognized that face, along with the name you had mentioned months earlier.” Meriwa’s expression suddenly became distant—cold—as he continued. “When I was first driven away by both Mikhail and his men, it was not just I who had been punished. There was also my daughter—Ila—who helped to smuggle away supplies to our people. It was I who first suggested helping the sick and poor. Only it was she who was caught helping them, and as such was forced to burn for her crimes. I can only imagine that her spirit was livid with hatred, and that she would not rest until she had plotted her revenge.”

“So that’s where I fit into this whole mess,” replied Suluk. “She was the one who freed me from those Russians, and in doing so, helped to steer me right in your direction. She was behind all of this…”

“It seems so,” he nodded. “I, myself, fled only shortly afterward, on the sole condition that I wouldn’t return as they suspected me also.” He chuckled, though Suluk imagined that he was actually stifling back tears. “Still,” he said, “they didn’t bet on me surviving, even after all the search parties they sent for me in the following years. Never underestimate a man who can brave the wilds and use them to his advantage. Never underestimate the hunter!”

“On that,” commented Suluk, “I think we can both agree.”