Last resorts

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As I stand barefoot in the forest, the sun is coming up over the horizon. This is my favourite time of day; the moist cool air prickles against my skin, and I feel the damp moss between my toes. I close my eyes and focus on the wind blowing lazily through the trees. The birds start to sing their morning songs, unaware of the dangers lurking in the depths of the forest. I take a deep breath and hold it, savouring the fresh forest smell, letting it fill my lungs and not wanting to let it go. This is my true home; this is where I feel at peace. I breathe out, smile and relax. I could stay in this moment forever.

In the distance, interrupting the orchestra of nature echoing through the forest, is the unmistakable shuffling of feet. Instantly alert, my eyes spring open, and I feel as though I have been shaken from a dream. As I frantically search the tree-line, I strain to hear above the deafening sound of blood pumping in my ears. Flanked at my side is my best friend Will, standing there poised and deadly, staring at me with his unblinking green eyes. He gently nods at me and confirms that he heard it too. A boyish smile creeps across his face as he slowly draws his sword from its sheath; this is one of Will's favourite past-times.

I stand there frozen, as that familiar sinking feeling gnaws in the pit of my stomach: the anticipation of what lies ahead. Will points in the direction of the sound, and my fears are quickly confirmed by the resonant moaning of the Dead. Without hesitating, he runs fearlessly towards them with his sword drawn; his feet barely touch the forest floor. I start running and desperately try to keep up as my long hair stings my bare shoulders. I quicken my pace and lengthen my stride, being careful not to trip on tree roots. I'm glad that we are barefoot; hopefully they haven't heard us coming.

The birds have stopped singing, and for a moment, the forest is deathly silent. The putrid smell of rotting flesh consumes the both of us, even before we can see them clearly. My eyes begin to water, as the usual wave of nausea rolls over me. Even after all this time, I clutch my mouth to stop myself from retching. Swallowing hard, I focus all of my senses on the five Infected dragging their rancid bodies through the thick density of the trees. Out the corner of my eye, Will holds up three fingers, silently confirming that he will take the three Infected on his right. Holding myself centred, I give Will a curt nod, confirming that I know the plan.

In unison, we silently circle our prey on opposite sides, taking cover behind the trees and never taking our eyes off the Dead. Swords are raised, muscles tensed; they are only a few metres away now. My pulse quickens, and then in one heart sinking moment, an Infected spots me. A moan gurgles deep inside its chest as it slowly staggers towards me. With outstretched arms and snarling face, it reaches for me hungrily and closes the distance between us.

Clutching my sword tightly, I grit my teeth, and in one swift motion, slice through its neck, decapitating it. Its head thuds on the forest floor, flicking black congealed blood in every direction. The wretched thing is still chomping, rabid for human flesh. I spin around, confronted by the other Infected and shove it with the hilt of my sword. It crashes to the ground, with arms and legs flailing. Before it can climb to its feet, I mercilessly slam the end of my sword down, ending its dismal existence.

To my right Will is standing triumphantly among the bodies, covered in gore and rotten flesh. He walks up to the decapitated head, finishes it off and swiftly chucks away his spoiled jacket. I look away, feeling shameful with the familiar guilt rising; they were once human like us.

Will, knowing what I was thinking, says, "Its better off this way, Alyx."

He reaches out to me and reassuringly places his hand on my shoulder, staring at me with concerned eyes. I know he's right of course, they are no longer human; they are monsters trapped in a human shell, but it still doesn't make it easy. Will has always maintained that if he was ever turned, he would rely on me to end the suffering and assures me that he would do the same.

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