I woke up again. Still cold. Still dark. The wind had died down to a gentle rustle, an eerie calm settling over the countryside after the brief exchange of gunfire. I checked myself; The bullets were still lodged in there, but my bandage had held firm and I was, for now, not getting any worse.

Sitting up, I took stock of my situation. I still had all of my equipment; For that, I was grateful. But I could barely see, my vision unfocussed and washed out. What remained of my blood pounded through my mangled veins as I hauled myself to my feet, and I took my first agonizing step forward. Gasping through the sharp pain, I shouldered my rifle and tried to move.

It was impossible to see where I was going. Even above me, the moon and stars were a blur, only vaguely less grey than the blackened forest surrounding me. I heaved myself forward, desperate to continue moving away from my attacker. Whether he was still alive, or if he had perished at the hands and teeth of the zombies was immaterial; I had to get away, and find somewhere to hole up and tend to my wounds.

The radio crackled, and I jumped. A familiar voice addressed me, filled with concern. A friend.

“Are you still there? What happened?”

I explained about the gunfight at the barn. I didn’t care that I wasn’t moving: Already I felt a modicum of safety, the voice at the other end of the line calming my nerves. I was reminded that even in this dark place, there could be camaraderie, there could be reliance. He himself was in a much better position than I; He had somehow stumbled upon a castle in the last light of dusk, and had fortified himself within its stony shell.

“Where are you now?”

I paused. How could I answer that? That I was in between pitch black certain death and pitch black potential death? I gave him my approximate last position, and roughly what direction I had crawled in before I fell unconscious. A minute or so passed, and I did my best to conceal myself in the trees lest I be stumbled upon. The radio sparked back to life in short order.

“I think I know where you are. Are you on a road?”

“The hell should I know?” I took a step forward. “No. It’s all grass and bracken. Look, I don’t know if-”

“Crunch crunch”

I stopped and looked down at my feet. Had fortune smiled upon me?

“I think… Let me drop a flare.”

The ruddy light lit up the whole forest, beaconing my position to all around. I struggled to make out shapes in the greying mess of my vision, but sure enough, a dirt path stretched off into the night.

“You magnificent bastard. Yes, I’m on the road.”

“Head uphill. Just keep listening to me.”

Ignoring my wounds, I ran hell for leather, my footsteps echoing against the forest wall. If it gave me the chance to live, I wasn’t going to do it by halves. I knew I needed help, and I knew I needed it soon. I must’ve gone a mile when the trail ended. I paused, catching my wheezing breath.

“What now?”

“You’re almost there. Carry on in the same direction, uphill. I’ll signal you when you’re nearby.”

Going back into the forest was eerie, and cut my travelling speed to a slow crawl. The road had seemed loud as my boots pounded against it; The forest, usually a haven for creeping survivors, seemed ten times as loud. Every fern and bush was working against me, rustling with the tiniest of moves. I stayed in contact with my friend; I knew I could trust him to the bitter end, but… The dark of an unlit nighttime forest can erode even the most deep-rooted sense of security. I started and stopped, crept and ran, holding my breath and my position at the slightest sound. And finally. my heart raced; I ran headfirst into a ruined arch, a sure sign that the castle must be nearby.

“I’m here. I’ll drop a flare for you.”

“Roger that. Eyes open.”

Trembling in the bushes, I fumbled for my lights. Grinning nervously, I struck the chemical cap against the igniter and hurled the stick uphill, towards the looming dark patch barely visible in the sky.

A nearby growl soon wiped the smile from my face. Looking up, I saw awkward figures clumsily stumbling towards the source of the red glow. The color drained from my face, and sweat beaded my brow. I hit the dirt, and moved away from the flare. Cursing my ill luck, I thumbed my radio.

“It’s me. Can you see my flare?”

“I think so.”

“Then you can see my problem.”

“No problem. I can’t cover you from here, and I’m not going out there, but you can sneak past them.”

“You’re kidding, right?”

“Trust me. Once you’re past the gatehouse, I’ll cover your approach.”

“Remind me to murder you if we survive this.”

Keeping my eye on the silhouettes in the fizzing flare, I started to edge my way up the hill, pulling myself along by my elbows. Every growl, every bout of rasping breath sounded like anger directed at me. I drew level with the flare, still checking over my shoulder for the telltale gait of the running zombie. This was a mistake. I should have been looking forward, where I would have seen the ankle of a wandering zombie. I froze. The zombie froze. It stayed in place, but remained silent. I gritted my teeth and gripped my pistol. Why wouldn’t this bastard move? Why, when I had come so close to rescue, was I stupid enough to trip into its hungry maw?

Anger took over from my fear. I was NOT going to die now, after surviving the ambush. Throwing aside reason, I stood up. The zombie roared. I didn’t even pull my trigger. I dashed past the former-man, sprinting forward, dodging the infected as I had dodged the trees in the forest. Seeing my, by many measures insane, actions, my friend had the good sense to lay down his own flare inside the keep. Seeing the light, I ran towards it. Shots rang out around and past me, but I knew this time that they were not meant for me. They were not sounds of intimidation and death; They were the bells that rang for life’s sake, calling me to safety and shelter. I threw myself through the stone doorway to the keep, and turned around to watch the last of my pursuers dropping into the bloodstained grass. A moment of silence, made more so by the recent gunfire, and then joyous laughter between us. I had made it back. I had survived.