Sarah's breath rose in a fluffy white cloud in the still icy air. She tugged the collar of her white jumpsuit higher around her neck, cursing whatever made her want to jump into Xanthris in mid-winter.
It was exactly the same as she remembered, she had not been here since... since five years ago. It was still a dismal, crappy place. Snow as far as the eye could see, with only the occasional black tree to provide a welcome contrast from the glaring white.
She shivered, not just from the cold, but from the flood of painful memories that had returned to haunt her. A vision of her, sat at Chloe's twenty-first birthday party. Chloe, her friend, had been the youngest agent. She was sent in with Sarah to this exact spot five years ago.
Sarah had volunteered, as a friend of the family, to deliver the letter.
Stark black copperplate on crisp, white paper.
"Missing presumed dead." It had read.
Sarah would never forget the tears and the sadness of that day.
A chill breeze snapped her back to reality. If she didn't find somewhere to shelter she was going to end up like Chloe. Dead, lying in some foreign field in a foreign country that was forever bloody miserable!
She heaved the overweight Bergen onto her back and trudged onwards, her numb paws crunching in the fresh, pure snow, her tail swiping her prints into an indistinguishable set of scratches.
She pulled her woolly hat from her pocket and jammed it on her head, struggling to blend into the snow, and failing.
"I bloody hate Xanthris. Crappy country."
She remembered the briefings.
'It only snows once a day there. And then only for twenty-three hours.'
She shuddered at the fact that in, she glanced down at her watch,
In five minutes she wasn't going to see her own hand in front of her face.
She wedged her hands back into her pockets and carried on walking, her face turned to the castle looming over the plains, it's ancient windows like skeletal eyes, watching for eternity. Who knew who, or what, was waiting for her...
Chloe stood, looking out of the window on the desolate castle that she had had lived in for five years. A single tear rolled down her cheek at the memory of a real life. Any hope of that had ended the day she was shot. Her and Sarah, her best friend, had been assaulting a castle that had supposedly been the hideout of a major guerilla group that had been terrorising Xanu for years. They had just made it to the edge of the encampment when they were spotted. She was in the open, no cover, and they shot her in the chest. They would have told her family that she was dead. She no longer existed, except in the minds and hearts of those who knew her.
She knew someone was looking out for her, though. After she was shot she woke up, which had been a major surprise, and found that she was inside the castle and that her wounds had been bandaged. She also found a plate of food in the corner of the room.
At first she though she'd been captured and was being held prisoner. But after no-one answered her cries and no-one came to threaten her she realised she was on her own at the top of the castle and that some unknown person was looking after her.
Her guardian angel.
That night she decided to stay and wait to see who was doing this for her. She struggled to stay awake, her eyelids like lead, until she heard wing-beats in the frigid night air, then she was wide awake. There was a rattle of claws on stone and a large winged creature landed on the edge of the tower, he swung himself into the room and took a few steps in the direction of the table where the plate was. He picked up Chloe's empty plate and replaced it with a clean one. He opened a cardboard box and took out the packaged food that was within. He left them on the middle of the table and turned to go. She looked straight into his eyes, and he into hers. She shrank back into the corner and he seemed to smile and a tear rolled down his ghostly white fur and splashed on the rough wooden floorboards. He made his way back onto the window sill and dropped off, merging into the darkness and the rapidly falling snow.
Sarah huddled over the tiny gas stove in her hastily erected tent, with the wind howling fitfully outside. She waited as the tiny kettle struggled to come to the boil and start whistling. When the water was finally boiled she poured it into the waiting mug and dropped a carefully measured teaspoon of coffee powder into the battered mug. The stove went out.
She moaned as darkness enveloped her. She was holding a cup of boiling hot coffee, which was looking very much like the only hot drink she was going to have tonight, and sitting in a sleeping bag that was a few inches too short so that she stuck out of the thing awkwardly.
"Typical, I get given a sleeping bag that's too small, a stove that runs our of fuel too quickly, a tent with a pole missing and a map that has absolutely nothing to do with where I am. Why can't supply get anything right?"
There was a loud whooshing outside and a huge winged creature was briefly silhouetted in the moonlight against the roof of the tent.
Sarah went quiet. Getting eaten was definitely very low on her list of things to do today.
She finished her coffee in silence and tried to curl herself up into a ball and use her tail as a scarf in a futile effort to keep warm. People had always joked that, for an Arctic fox she sure didn't like the cold.
She would show them, she had said. And then she had signed herself up for military service, mainly to prove to herself that she was good enough.
She had passed through the academy with flying colours, making the top three from the academy. She was then sent to 666 squad. They always said that they lost the least agents of every squad, even though they were rumoured to be cursed. That's where she met Chloe.
Sarah was too tired to halt the flow of painful memories and just let them wash over her, each image of a friend lost tore open the old wounds in her heart. 666sq had always been close, but the death of Chloe had hit her hardest. From the first time they had met it was as though they had known each other all their lives. And she let her best friend die on their first mission. That night, in the same frozen wasteland that her friend died in, a lone Arctic fox cried herself to sleep.
Chloe sat with her back to the stone wall. There were so many questions just waiting to burst out. Who was her unknown rescuer? Why did her save her? Why was she in this tower? Where was this tower?
She knew that the questions would have to wait but the desperate need to know more was beginning to get the better of her. She grabbed a pebble from the corner of the room and started scratching on the wall. The huge, scrawled letters began to take shape. Who are you? That's what she really wanted to know.
Maybe it would all become clear if she knew who he was. Maybe she would find out who she was. In the past five years, her world had become so confused that she didn't know who she really was any more.
All she knew was that no-one but the mystery creature knew that she was alive.
And she wasn't even sure of that any more.
She knew that once she knew what was going on she could finally escape these four walls. Her own personal prison. Otherwise, she was going to go completely mad.
Sarah trudged through the snow-drifts, the straps of her Bergen chafing her shoulders. She was determined to get to the castle before darkness fell.
Her breath clouded in thick clouds, hanging in the air behind her. Angels smashed by the heavy falling snow. She glanced down at her watch. Oh nine hundred hours. Plenty of time. She tucked her hand back into her pocket and felt the comforting weight of the nine millimetre there. It had been with her ever since her signing up, it was like an old friend. "Actually", she thought, "I'd better not call it that. Knowing my history with friends...".
She grimaced at the thought. Nothing lowers morale more than dwelling on bad memories.
She fixed her stare on the castle, it still evaded her. It's stone walls seemed to be moving further away with every step she took. She was never going to reach it. She sped up to a jog, her paws pounding craters in the soft snow. She had to get to the castle. She had to. She had come this far, she wasn't going to give up now.
The snow was falling heavier now, but the wind was dying down. She swept the snow from her fur with the back of her hand and struggled to maintain her pace. It was becoming an uphill struggle but she knew she could do it.
It was nothing but a challenge. "Oh boy. I love a challenge." She grinned, risking a mouthful of icy flakes.
Her rifle swung round and smacked her in the back of the knees.
"Oh, son of a..." She picked herself out of the snowdrift and attempted to brush herself off. She managed to spin the rifle back into her knees again, clumsy and numb from the cold. She pulled the tent out of her Bergen and tried to set it up to provide shelter from the all enveloping blanket of snow.
She eventually forced the tent into something resembling it's proper shape and crawled inside, unpacked her tiny stove and struggled to light it. This was going to turn out to be one hell of a challenge. She finally coaxed a minute flame from the stove and fiddled with it until it spread warmth around her tent. So far, that was the first thing that had gone right that day. She unfolded the map out of it's clear plastic pocket hung around her neck. She stared at it, as if giving it the evils would cause it to point her in the right direction again. It stayed exactly the same as it was before. She sighed and pulled her radio from it's protective case in her Bergen. It's display glowed faintly. There was no signal. She was cut off from the world, with the wrong map, and no idea of where she was. She glanced at her watch. Thirteen hundred hours. Damn.
She had been travelling for four hours and she still seemed no closer to her goal. She could wait here for half an hour and then the snow would stop. She would have another hour before the snow started again. She might get another five miles. But she had no idea how far away the castle actually was.
This was going to be a long day.
She set the alarm on her watch and tucked her head to her chest and tried to get some sleep. She was going to need it.
A cold breeze through the window woke Chloe. Funny, she hadn't realised that she'd fallen asleep. She must have been more tired than she thought. Something caught her eye. Where she had written on the wall there was now a reply. Heavy Gothic writing, written in blood. The words 'I am no-one' underneath her 'Who Are You?'. Well, now she knew who he was, not that than helped her very much.
She picked up her plate and wolfed the food down. She was going to think of a way out of here. She had spent long enough in this room and now she was bored.
The door was solid oak, there was no way she was going to break through that. However, she peered through the iron bars, the latch was within reach. She hunted round the room for a piece of wire. She spotted the coat-hanger dangling off a wooden peg in the wall. The peg looked new, and it hadn't been there before. And, for that matter, neither had the coat-hanger.
This Soulless person, whoever he was, wanted her to escape. Odd.
She straightened out the coat-hanger and poked it through the bars. It was long enough, she drew it back and bent a hook in the end. Now, she could leave.
She stuck it through the bars and lifted the latch. The door swung open silently. The hinges had been oiled recently, too. She dropped the coat hanger and crept down the cold stone spiral staircase.
The bleeping of Sarah's watch dragged her back from her dreams of home. It was time. She hurriedly switched the stove off, packed it into her Bergen and started dismantling the tent. She finished packing the tent into her Bergen and looked round for the castle. It was a hell of a lot closer that before she'd made camp. In fact, she was right next to it. She pulled the nine millimetre from her pocket and took the safety off. She tiptoed round the side of castle and towards the door.
Chloe stepped from the stairs and was faced by another heavy oak door. She pulled the metal ring and it groaned open, snow fell inwards
Sarah watched as the door creaked open and she took aim at whoever was going to be coming through the door. Her finger tightened on the trigger.
Chloe stepped out through the open door into the world, free at last...