The first time I saw Raphael Vega, he took a bullet for me. The second time, I wanted to put a bullet in him.--Morgan Hunter


Sweat dripped from Raphael Vega clinging precariously to the tip of his nose. He wiped his face with the back of his sleeve, leaving the material with a fresh streak of dirt. The bloodstains covering his arms and chest made the new spot indistinguishable from the rest.

He continued to perspire. The climate change dried out most of the planet but the humidity remained in the Republic of Floridian Islands. The moist heat mocked the world with its stubborn refusal to leave. Even late at night, it felt like walking through a sauna.

They'd passed a sign an hour back that said Tallahassee forty miles. They weren't going that far. The military base was north of there.

The leather soles of his boots flopped with each step, making him sound like a flat tire. The tread gave out a hundred miles ago but refused to fall off.

He and his brother, Michael had been walking for days, following what used to be the eastern coastline south. They'd crossed into the Republic of Floridian Islands yesterday.

Raphael would happily walk for weeks more now that the end was in sight. After years of waiting to be discharged, they'd finally received orders to return to base.

He glanced at Michael. His smudged face no longer held the roundness and exuberance of youth. Drawn and cracked lips punctuated Michael's hollowed cheeks. A tattered uniform lay perched upon his boney shoulders, threatening to disintegrate in the warm breeze.

His brother may be worse for wear, but at least he was alive. They both were. They were also the last two remaining members of the Vega family. 

Sadness welled inside of him. So much loss. So much devastation.

He sniffed and scrubbed a hand over his face. What's done was done. They weren't the only ones who'd lost everything in the war. At least they had each other, which was more than most people could say.

"Once we get our discharge papers and our final compensation, I'm going to build myself a mountain retreat," Raphael declared.

Michael arched a brow. "Counting your money before you get it, eh? Where did that come from?"

"I've been thinking about it for a while," he said. "It's important to have plans for the future." And Raphael had plenty. The first thing he intended to do was find a warm, welcoming woman and spend the next week lying in bed worshipping her.

Michael's bemused expression made Raphael laugh. "Stop reading my mind."

"I couldn't help it. You were 'broadcasting' your desires rather loudly," Michael said.

Raphael gave him a sly grin. "What about you? You can't tell me that you're not interested in having company." He nudged him gently with his elbow.

Michael gazed off in the distance, his eyes unfocused. "Perhaps someday." When the dead no longer haunt my nights.

Raphael caught the thought before Michael censored it. "Where do you think you'll settle?" he asked to distract him from his nightmares.

"I'm going to live by the ocean or what's left of it," he said eventually. "I'm tired of endless dunes of sand and dirt. I want to see what we fought so hard for." The ruby in his gold ring flashed in the bright moonlight as Michael waved his hand in the air.

Raphael nodded. His brother always loved the water. Their parents couldn't get him out of it when he was a boy. "Will you at least come visit me?"

Michael laughed. "As if you'd ever let me hear the end of it, if I didn't."

Raphael's broad smile faded as a towering wall of razor wire and shattered glass came into view. "We're here."

Michael stared at the wall. "What happened to it? Looks more like a prison than a military base."

“The war happened,” Raphael said.

The newness may have worn off but to Raphael there'd never been a more beautiful sight. Cracked paint, razor wire and all. The place didn’t hold the best of memories, but no one forced them to change their genetics. They'd volunteered. The blame for what they’d become fell squarely upon their shoulders.

The first time he and his brother had walked onto this base they'd been naive soldiers. By the time they left for the front-lines, they'd become something else. Something Other. Nightmares in human form. More powerful than the average man and five times as deadly.

The brave or foolish called them vampires but they were so much more than those mythical creatures. Vampires had limited powers. According to the scientists, their gifts would continue to evolve and change over the years. If their calculations were correct, there’d be a time in the future when he and Michael would become virtually invincible.

Vampires, super-soldiers, freaks of nature...

Today, it didn't matter what anyone called them for they'd finally reached the end of the road. By tomorrow, they'd be nothing more than civilians, which suited Raphael just fine.

No longer a pawn in an unwinnable war, Raphael wanted to buy a piece of property, build a house, and kick his feet up for the next fifty or sixty years. It would take that long to get over everything he'd witnessed during the war.

He looked at Michael. "Told you we’d make it." Raphael clasped him on the shoulder and gave him a gentle shake.

Michael smiled weakly. "You didn’t give me a choice. I’d have never heard the end of it if I had quit. I sure hope they have an officer's mess in there. I could use a drink.”

“Come on, brother,” he said. “Let's get this over with. The sooner we check in, the sooner we'll be able to get you that house by the ocean.”

"You make it sound simple," Michael said.

"It is." Raphael put his arm around Michael half carrying, half walking his brother to the entrance. “We’ll go in. Sign a bunch of paperwork. Then be on our way.”

"Nothing is ever that easy," Michael muttered.

“Ye of little faith,” Raphael said.

Two guard towers stood watch over the entrance. Raphael couldn't make out the people but he could see the ends of the automatic weapons pointed toward them. He moved his arm away from Michael and slowly raised his hands in the air.

"Halt!" Someone called out from behind the armaments. 

"Captain Raphael Vega and Sergeant Michael Vega reporting in as commanded," he said.

Michael swayed on his feet, but remained upright. "Are you sure this is where we're supposed to report?"

"Positive." Raphael reached for the paperwork.

“I don’t understand why they needed us to return to the lab. Couldn’t they have checked us out up north and given us our discharge papers?”

“They probably want to give us another physical before we leave.”

"I said halt!"

Raphael froze halfway to his shirt pocket. "I have our orders right here."

“There are a lot of guns here for a base that’s being shut down,” Michael said.

His brother was right but Raphael kept his thoughts to himself. Michael was too fragile to make it any further. They needed supplies and rest before they continued on their journey.

"Leave the papers and drop your weapons," someone else said.

Raphael unhooked his holster and let his pistol drop to the ground. He didn't need a weapon to kill these men and neither did his brother. If Michael weren't so weak, they might be dead already.

"Him, too," someone said.

"He's unarmed," Raphael said.

"Hold fast." One of the men rushed forward and reached into Raphael’s pocket to retrieve his paperwork. He ran back and disappeared out of sight.

A few minutes later the gates in front of them creaked open. "Sorry, captain, but we needed to verify your identities," the soldier said.

"The war is over, private," Raphael said as he helped Michael through the gate.

The soldier's expression shifted. “Not everyone is aware of that, sir.”

True. He and Michael had encountered a few insurgents along the way to the base. Some had listened to reason, when they told them a truce had been called. Others had pressed the issue. Their bodies were littered along their route.

"They're waiting for you and Sergeant Vega at the main facility,” the soldier said, then added, “Welcome back."

Raphael nodded, then paused. "Do we wait here for a ride?"

The soldier shook his head. "Sorry, sir, but we're running low on fuel. Vehicles can only be used in an emergency."

"Understood." Raphael turned to Michael. "Can you make it a bit further?"

Michael scowled at him. "You know I can."

They continued down the winding lane that once held cypress trees and crooked oaks filled with Spanish moss. Most of the trees had fallen. The ones left standing were now bare.

Seashells crunched under their feet as they passed several other soldiers. The men and women appeared to be in the process of being discharged.

A few waved. Others smiled. While still others were too shell-shocked to register their presence. Most would eventually pull it together, but there were some who'd never be right in the head again.

Raphael glanced at his brother and sent up a silent prayer that he’d be one of the lucky ones. Michael put on a brave face but the war had changed him, fractured him somehow. Another sharp tap and he'd shatter. Maybe the scientists in the lab here could help him. Raphael decided to ask at the first opportunity.

Sections of the asphalt had been blown away from all the shelling. Instead of being resurfaced, someone had dumped topsoil in the holes.

"Do you remember the first time we walked down this road?" Raphael asked.

Michael glanced at him. "Yes, I thought it was beautiful...until the alligator came out of the bushes and tried to eat me."

Raphael chuckled. “You should’ve seen the look on your face.”

“It wasn’t funny.”

“Yes, it was,” he said. "Don't have to worry about that now." There were no more alligators or crocodiles. Most of the animal kingdom had been wiped out thanks to the war.

"If you hadn't shot him..." Michael switched places with Raphael so he wouldn’t be next to the dead brush.

"He wouldn't have eaten you," Raphael said. "Your head’s too hard, your skin is too tough, and you taste bad."

Michael glared at him but couldn't keep a straight face.

Four sets of barracks came into view when they reached the main quad. The long burlap tents stretched for a hundred and fifty feet and housed around seventy-five soldiers each. Only one looked occupied. The rest showed signs of being abandoned long ago.

The main facility where the genetic experimentation took place squatted like a bloated gray toad against the dead trees. Camouflage paint peeled from its weathered brick walls, stripped away by the humidity and constant bombing.

A couple of guards jumped to attention as they approached the front door.

"At ease, gentleman." Raphael pulled out their orders. "Where can we find Commander D. B. Griffin?"

The soldier scanned the paperwork. "His office is located in the lower level of the facility, sir," he said. "Room Bravo Eight. Not sure if he's there right now though." He glanced at the night sky.

"I understand. Do you mind if we check in before catching some sleep?”

“No, sir. I believe you’re expected to.”

“Thank you, private." Raphael looked at Michael. "Can you wait a little longer?"

Michael smiled. "Do I have a choice?"

"No. Let's do this."

The soldier on the left stepped forward and opened the doors for them. Raphael walked through first with Michael close on his heels. The heavy steel doors closed behind them leaving them in darkness. Not even a hall light illuminated the space.

Odd, Raphael thought but dismissed his unease.

If they were running low on fuel and supplies, they’d conserve everywhere they could. No unnecessary waste. Not even for a hall light. The shadows shifted.

Michael cried out.

Raphael turned to see what was happening to his brother. He caught a glimpse of the man raising the needle a second before he felt a sharp jab in the side of his neck.

"What's the meaning of this?" he bellowed. The drugs were already taking effect.

The room shifted beneath his feet and morphed in and out of view. Strong hands clamped down on his arms holding him in place.

“I demand to speak with Commander D. B. Griffin,” Raphael slurred.

"He’s not here. Take them below!" The man in a lab coat pointed down the hall.

Raphael reached for his brother. Their fingers brushed, then the men yanked them apart. "Michael!"

"Raph!" One man went flying end over end as Michael released some of his power.

"I told you that they're dangerous. Put him down now!" lab coat man ordered.

"No!" Raphael screamed. "Don't hurt him! He's been hurt enough."

Someone stepped behind Michael and struck him in the back of his head with the butt of a rifle. He crumbled to the floor like a pile of bones. Blood ran from the wound and dripped down his neck.

Raphael struggled to break the grasp of the men holding him. They tightened their grips and someone plunged another needle into him, emptying the syringe. The room swam and black dots appeared before his eyes.

"Get them down below before the next batch arrives!" Lab coat man roared. "The last thing we need is for them to figure out what's really happening."

"Michael," he murmured. They picked his brother up and dumped him on a rickety gurney. Raphael watched in anguish as they wheeled Michael away.



Raphael awoke to screaming. His tongue was dry and it felt as if all the spit had hardened in his mouth leaving a thin crust behind.

"Quiet," he mumbled, but the agonized screams continued.

He bit down on the inside of his lip. Blood welled in his mouth. Raphael swallowed greedily. He was hungry. So very hungry. The pitch of the cries changed to tortured wails.

“Please stop.”

Raphael opened an eyelid. Gray concrete lined the walls and floor. The monotonous color broken only by the large, rusty circular drain in the center of the room. There were no windows that he could see nor was there any furniture. The room didn't look familiar.

He glanced to his right expecting to see someone next to him, but he was alone. So where were the screams coming from? Raphael tried to recall where he was and how he'd gotten here but his hazy thoughts refused to clear. He leaned back. Cold crept into his bones. 

Why was he standing by the wall?

Raphael moved his hand and something clanked. He looked down. A thick silver shackle, attached to a chain anchored in the wall, had been clamped over his wrist. He tried to move his other hand but it wouldn't budge either.

What was going on?

He took a step and managed to move an inch before the shackle around his ankle bit into his skin. Why was he chained to the wall? Had the enemy captured him?

Once again, Raphael tried to remember. What had he been doing before he ended up here? Wherever “here” was.

The screams of anguish rose in volume but inside the concrete room the sounds were faint. It wasn’t uncommon to torture prisoners with audio recordings. Raphael scanned the walls for hidden speakers. If they were there, it wasn’t obvious.

He listened to the terrified cries attempting to pinpoint their location. It took Raphael a moment to realize that most of the sound was coming from inside his mind. Which meant...

Horror filled him. Raphael's head shot up. "Michael," his voice cracked. He cleared his throat and tried again. “Michael!”

A guard stepped into view. He wore the same uniform Raphael had on. Was he an ally? Raphael felt the shackles binding his limbs. He couldn’t be. He must’ve stolen the uniform.

“It won’t do you any good to yell,” the guard said. “He can’t hear you.”

"What are you doing to my brother?" Raphael snarled.

The guard glanced down the hall. "Not anything good."

"I demand to speak to your leader. Prisoners of war have rights."

“Prisoners of war? Is that what you think this is?” The guard laughed. “Doc said you might be loopy when you first woke up. He wasn’t kidding.”

Raphael frowned. “If you aren’t the enemy, then who are you?”

“A grunt who’s following orders,” the man said.

“Why is my brother being tortured?” Raphael asked.

"You'd have to ask the docs," he said.

His memory came back in a barrage of fuzzy images. Raphael surged forward. The chains strained but held firm. "Let me out of here!"

"You know I can't do that," the guard said. "Now step back. I don't want to have to Taser you."

"Is that what they're doing to Michael?" Raphael snapped. His brother was so fragile. He wouldn't hold up long.

The guard stared at him but there was no pity in his eyes. "Don't know. Don’t care. That's not part of my job," he said. "All I have to do is watch you until they're ready for you."

Cold slithered down Raphael’s throat and settled around his heart. "The fact that I'm your commanding officer means nothing to you?"

The soldier flinched. "My orders came from above your pay grade."

Raphael glared.

The soldier's expression hardened. "Don't try any of that head shit with me. It won’t work," he said. "The drugs the docs gave you made sure of it."

Raphael smiled, exposing his fangs. The man took a step back. The scientists obviously hadn't been entirely truthful with the soldier. If his powers were useless, then he wouldn't be able to hear Michael so loudly in his head. And Raphael could definitely hear his brother.

Michael,he called out psychically. Brother, what are they doing to you?


Michael, it's Raph. Tell me where you are.

The seconds ticked by.

I-I don't know. It hurts. It hurts so bad. Worse than the first time. Way worse.

Raphael couldn’t imagine anything hurting as bad as the transformation. What were they doing to his brother? You are going to be okay,he said. Do you hear me? You’re going to be all right. Have they told you why they're doing this?

They've been ordered to kill us.


Michael screamed. Because of what we are...what we've become. God is punishing us for our arrogance.

Leave Him out of it. This has nothing to do with God and everything to do with man.

Anger burned through Raphael. They'd been so close. All they'd needed were their discharge papers and they would've been on their way. No one would've ever seen or heard from them again.

Raphael wouldn't let them get away with it. They’d served honorably. They didn’t deserve this. His brother didn’t deserve this. He’d risked his sanity to help them and this was how they rewarded his sacrifice. His fury grew. It coiled and slithered through him, until only deadly venom remained. If they wanted another war, Raphael would give them one.

I need you to hold on while I figure out how to get out of here,he begged. Do this for me, brother. Do this for our future.

There is no escaping,Michael said.  We have no future. I told you, they intend to kill us. I read their minds.

Can you infiltrate their thoughts? Turn them against each other?Raphael held his breath. If Michael could slip into their minds, he could control them. Make them do whatever he pleased.

His power bordered on god-like. But there was no telling how long they’d been torturing him and how many drugs they'd pumped into his system. Was he strong enough? Michael?


Michael, did you hear me?Silence. Fear quickly ate away Raphael’s anger. He strained to listen. He could no longer hear his brother's faint screams through the walls. Was he dead? Had they killed him like he said they were going to? Or had he mercifully passed out? There was no way of knowing for sure.

He couldn't be dead. Not after they'd survived all these years at war.

"Michael!" Raphael bellowed and yanked at his chains. They screeched ominously but refused to give. 

"Save your breath." The guard shook his head. "You're going to need it."

Raphael jolted at the sound of a squeaky cart being wheeled down the hall. He opened his eyes in time to see a man in a lab coat walk into the room. Was he the same one who'd given the order to drug them?

He had no idea. How long had they been here? How many days had passed? Without any windows, it was impossible to tell.

"Where's my brother?" he asked. “Is he still alive?”

The man in the lab coat didn't answer. Instead, he plugged in his equipment next to Raphael’s chains and began twisting the dials. Raphael felt his arms tingle.

The machine on top the cart looked like an old-fashioned radio, but he knew it wasn't anything so benign. The device squealed and squeaked giving off a high-pitched sound that made his ears hurt. A syringe and a scalpel sat on a tray next to the machine. Raphael didn’t like the looks of those either.

"What are you doing?" Raphael asked.

The man continued to work, until he was happy with the instrument's tone, then he said, "I'm not going to lie. This is going to hurt."

"Why are you doing this?" he asked. "We came here to be discharged. The war is over."

"I have my orders just like you." He reached for a scalpel. "If you don't stay still, I'll have David flip that switch." The man pointed to a toggle on the machine, then motioned for the guard to move closer.

“David,” Raphael said. “So that’s your name.”

The soldier’s face paled. “You shouldn’t have told him my name.”

“It doesn’t matter now,” lab coat man said. 

Raphael didn’t have time to enjoy the soldier’s discomfort. He had more important things to focus on—like the scalpel in the man’s hand. He took a step back, but was met by the cool concrete wall. "Keep that away from me."

"I’m just removing your sleeve." The man made quick work of the material and tossed it aside then dropped the scalpel on the tray next to the machine. He picked up an empty syringe and a rubber strap.

"What do you plan to do with that?" Raphael asked.

"I would think that's obvious." The man didn't clean the skin with alcohol. He simply wrapped the rubber strap around Raphael's arm until the veins bulged, then jabbed the needle in. With the utmost care, he slowly pulled the plunger out. The vile filled with crimson as Raphael's blood poured into it.

The coppery aroma teased his nostrils. Raphael's fangs extended automatically.

"I'm sure you're hungry," the man said, not taking his eyes off the job he was doing. "But I'm afraid feeding you would only delay the inevitable."

"If you're going to kill me, then why do you need my blood?" This man wouldn't be the first who'd wanted his blood to further personal ambitions or to seek power. Raphael had encountered many over the years.

He and his brother, Michael weren't like the others who'd been created in the image of vampires. They could walk in the light without instantly exploding. Michael even more so than Raphael.

Through the years scientists had run hundreds of tests on their blood trying to determine why they were different. It was ironic that the people who'd developed advance gene splicing couldn't find the one gene that made the brothers special.

The man’s brown eyes locked on Raphael's face. "The war might be over now but you never know how long peace will prevail. This..." He popped the vial off and shook the bloody glass in front of his face. "Will be stored for future use." He stoppered the vial, then put a fresh one on and continued to withdraw blood.

"You're going to clone me?" he asked incredulously. That was one way to tackle the gene problem. Raphael didn't like the idea of a bunch of clones running around with his face.

"Only if necessary," the man said.

"Wouldn't it be easier to keep me alive, so that I can fight? Why go through the trouble of having to train new men, when you have the real one right here ready for orders?"

"Not my call." The man shook his head and grabbed another vial. "My orders are clear."

Raphael mentally reached for Michael. He couldn't feel his brother, couldn't sense him in any way. Hadn’t been able to for a long time. He grew very still. "Did you kill my brother?" The quietly spoken question sounded like an explosion within the room.

Lab coat man stopped what he was doing and looked at the man tasked with guarding him. Sweat broke out across the soldier's forehead and David glanced nervously toward the cell door.

Raphael's stomach sank. He wasn't sure how he'd do it, but if the man in the lab coat said yes, he was going to kill him.

"Does it matter now?" he hedged.

"Yes, it's the difference between you living and dying," he said softly.

"Then you're going to have to try to kill me."

Even though he knew what was coming, Raphael's body trembled as the words were spoken aloud. His brother was dead. They'd made it through so much only to have it end here. He quaked. He should've protected him better. They could've walked away after the war ended. No one would've been any the wiser. Instead, he'd followed orders. And for what?

Michael was dead. And he soon would be.

He glared at the man in the white lab coat. If there was any justice in the world, he'd be able to take him with him before he went. When the man reached for another empty vial, Raphael lunged at him.

The man jumped back. "Hit it."

David flipped the toggle switch, then moved away.

Electricity shot through Raphael's shackles, jolting up his arms, until his entire body jerked violently. Pain exploded inside his head, temporarily blinding him.

He bellowed a second before his jaw clamped shut. Raphael's fangs burst through the front of his lower lip, slicing his skin. It hurt to breathe. And when he could finally take a breath, the smell of burning flesh reached his nostrils.

“Shut it off,” lab coat man said.

The soldier flipped the switch and the current stopped.

"You will pay for that," Raphael gasped. His arms and legs continued to twitch. "And you'll pay for my brother's death. I promise."

"Hit him again," the man said.

David hesitated. "But sir..."

"Do it now!" the man shouted.

Raphael cried out as the electricity ravaged him.

Brother stop screaming. I can't survive your pain.


There was no answer. Had he wanted to hear his brother's voice so badly that he'd imagined it? Electricity crackled through him. Raphael's boots blew off his feet, landing across the room. He slammed into the concrete again and again unable to control his movements. Something in his skull cracked. If he were simply human, he'd be dead by now. 

"That's enough," said the man in the lab coat.

The current died and Raphael’s head dropped forward. His body slumped, hanging from the chains. The silver shackles were the only things keeping him upright.

"I'll come back and get the rest of the samples in a couple days. Dehydration and starvation will take the fight right out of him." His cart squeaked as he wheeled it toward the cell door. "Don't get too close to him. They have remarkable healing abilities."

"Yes, sir."

"And David."

"Yes, sir."

"No matter what it looks like or what he says to you, he's no longer human," the man said. "Don't make the mistake of thinking that he is. No human would've survived that many volts. He’s one of the cursed." He looked down and his lip curled. "And for god's sake get something to cover his feet. I don't want to have to look at them. They are disgusting."

"Yes, sir."

"Might as well hose him down while you're at it," he said.

"Yes, sir."

Raphael glanced up in time to see David look at him and grimace.

"I'll be back once I finish with the other one," he said, then left.



Raphael wore a dead man's boots. David hadn't said so, but a live soldier didn't have the luxury of owning a second pair. And given the condition of the shoes, it was a safe assumption that whoever had owned them didn't need them anymore. David had hosed him down as requested, but that had been days ago. How many? He couldn't say.

All Raphael knew for certain was that he was dying. His organs were shutting down. The stench of his decay was nauseating. He hadn't fed in over a week. Blood no longer oozed from his cracked lips and he could barely raise his head.

The last time the man in the lab coat had come to take Raphael’s blood, he hadn't been able to access a vein. After ten minutes of frustrated trying, he'd said we're done here and left.

Raphael hadn't heard from Michael, since...he didn't know when. He now accepted the fact that if his brother wasn't already dead, then he would be soon. He'd been in worse shape when they'd arrived. No matter how strong Michael's will was he wouldn't have been able to survive the torture this long.

The pain in his chest refused to ease. Raphael couldn't even mourn properly. He was too dehydrated to cry.

A radio crackled. "Get ready to go."

“Right away.” David gathered what little he had and glanced into the cell. "It'll be over soon," he said. "You won't have to suffer any longer."

Raphael tried to lift his head. In the end, the only thing he could do was tilt it. His vision swam as he attempted to focus on the soldier. He opened and closed his mouth, but no words would come out. David shook his head pityingly and left. The world spun and Raphael passed out.

The next time he awoke, he noticed a unit of men making their way through the halls. They stopped only long enough to set explosive charges, then they moved on.

Raphael tried to call out, tried to catch their attention, but none of them noticed him. And if they did, they didn't acknowledge his presence. It was probably just as well. He wouldn't survive another day any way.

"Everyone out!" someone shouted.

Boots pounded down the hall.

Raphael listened to them fade. Wouldn't be long now. The seconds ticked by. He heard a loud bang above him and the walls shook. More explosions followed.

Plaster and concrete rained down from the ceiling, crashing onto the floor at his feet. Raphael closed his eyes and prayed to the deity of his childhood. With any luck, he'd soon see his brother and family again.

The walls bucked, then bowed behind him. The chains tethering him came loose. Then everything seemed to move in slow motion. There was a flash of orange and red as the charge across from his cell went off. The blast lifted Raphael up, then slammed him back, but there was no longer a wall behind him.

Raphael expected the building to come down upon his head, but instead he was propelled out. Objects blurred in front of his face as he rocketed through the air. It wasn't until he hit the ground and sunlight blinded him that he realized the objects were trees. Part of the wall had traveled with him and was now perched upon a log.

Too weak to walk, Raphael simply rolled, allowing gravity to pull him beneath the concrete slab. It was as good a gravestone as any,he thought.

From this angle, Raphael could see the sunlight and hear the purr of engines in the distance. Given the level of noise, there was no doubt the last of the troops were moving out. Soon the place would be shut down for good.

Raphael lay there enjoying the smell of clean air. He'd been afraid that the last thing he'd smell before he left this planet was his own foul odor.

A twig snapped nearby. Raphael’s breath froze in his lungs. The sound came again. This time closer. They’d found him. He was too weak to fight. Too weak to do anything but die. At least that's what he thought until he caught a sweet aroma drifting on the breeze.

What was it? His mind was too starved to focus.

The footsteps drew nearer along with the wonderful scent. Raphael found himself crawling toward the sound, when every instinct inside of him was screaming to stay put.

A set of boots appeared next to his makeshift grave. The feet stood in place a moment then eventually moved, taking the delicious aroma with them.

Raphael nearly whimpered, until he noticed that the person didn't go far. They'd merely walked to the end of the log and sat down. He heard the strike of a match, then saw smoke rise.

He couldn't see the person's face, only their back. He had no way of knowing if they were alone or if there was an entire regiment positioned a few feet away. Not that it mattered.

His instincts had usurped his mind. He was no longer controlling his movements. With cracked hands, Raphael pulled himself across the ground. The sound of the camp being dismantled covered his movements.

It felt like it took an eternity to reach the log where the man sat. Raphael glanced back. All that effort and he’d only covered six feet.

The glorious aroma was stronger now. It compelled him to continue. He'd only get one chance at this. If he missed, then Raphael was as good as dead.

Even if he didn't, there was no guarantee that he'd survive the rest of the day. None of it mattered. Raphael couldn't ignore the drumming in his head. He took a deep breath and lunged for the man.

The cigarette went flying into the air as the man tumbled back. Before he could cry out for help, Raphael clamped his hand over the man’s mouth and buried his fangs in his throat. Blood filled his mouth.

Raphael tried to swallow but his throat refused to work. He choked. Precious fluid jettisoned from his lips soiling the ground. The man struggled to escape but somehow Raphael held on. He pressed his mouth against the man's skin as tight as he could, forcing the blood down his throat. After a few more false starts, he managed to swallow. It burned so bad that tears welled in his eyes.

He did it again. This time it didn't hurt quite as bad. By the fifth or sixth gulp, Raphael’s pain disappeared and the man stopped struggling. He wept as he drained the life out of the soldier. He'd had no choice but that didn't make taking an innocent life any easier.

Raphael ripped his mouth away from the man's throat. If he drank much more, he'd be ill. Already he could feel his strength returning. After banging on Death’s door for so long, he hadn’t thought recovery was possible.

He pulled the man's body under the slab and wedged it against the log. If anyone came looking for him, they wouldn't find any trace of him.

Now that he'd finally eaten, Raphael could focus again. If he managed to survive the night there was a very good chance that he'd live. It was a miracle. Or maybe the man in the lab coat was right about him being cursed.

Whatever the truth, he was alive. He thought about Michael. If he’d managed to escape, maybe his brother had, too. It was a long shot but so was his survival. Raphael vowed not to leave until he had physical proof one way or another of his brother's fate.

* * * * *

Every part of Raphael’s body hurt. He opened his eyes and blinked, but didn’t recognize where he was. The gray concrete walls of his cell were gone. He moved and something jabbed him in the back. What was he lying on? And what was that god-awful smell?

He lifted his hand and heard a clank. Raphael looked down and saw the shackle around his wrist. So that part wasn't a dream. He twisted the metal. The shackle strained, then fell away. Raphael sniffed. The stench emanated from nearby. He rolled over and spotted the body.

Given the putrid odor of decomp it had been there for more than a day. Raphael crawled along the log and poked his head out. The main building he'd been housed in had been reduced to rubble and the barracks were gone. He listened, but didn't hear any sound of movement. That didn't mean that he was alone, but no one was nearby.

Raphael grabbed onto the log and pulled himself to his feet. He swayed as his legs struggled to support his boney frame. He'd been close to death many times, but he'd never come this close to dying. He looked at the demolished building. Was Michael still in there? Raphael sent up a silent prayer that his brother had somehow survived.

He’d need to be at full strength to dig him out, which meant Raphael had to find something to eat. The pain made it obvious that he was still healing from his injuries. He moved slowly, cautiously. Scoping out the area was imperative. There was a very good possibility that no one remained. For survival sake, he hoped that wasn't the case.

Raphael worked his way around the edge of the woods taking care to stay in deep enough so that he wouldn't be spotted. The camp had been completely stripped.

The soldiers had taken everything that hadn't been nailed down. He found what he was looking for near the turrets. A handful of men were dismantling the massive towers and the guns inside them. A truck had been positioned next to the gate to save on loading time. Raphael drew nearer so he could hear what they were saying.

"I got to hit the head," a soldier said.

One of the men grunted in response.

They paid no attention to him as he strode down the road and stepped into the woods. They seemed to be making an effort not to look at the destroyed building. Was it out of guilt? Or something more primal? They continued to work at a clipped pace.

Raphael stalked through the woods and waited for the soldier to unzip his fly and start to relieve himself. When he was at his most vulnerable, Raphael came up behind him. He leaned in next to the soldier’s ear and said, "Hello David."

Raphael watched from the safety of the woods as the men searched for David. They didn't put a lot of time or effort into it. Obviously he wasn't worth much to them or perhaps they were more concerned about their own safety. With David missing, they weren't as relaxed as they'd been earlier.

They kept their eyes on the woods and the road, as they hurried up to finish the job. They departed the second they'd dismantled the last of the turrets and loaded it onto the truck. David regained consciousness shortly thereafter.

When his gaze landed on Raphael, his eyes widened and he screamed. Unfortunately for him, no one but Raphael could hear him.

"It won't do you any good," Raphael said. "They're gone."

"H-h-how are you alive?" he asked.

"How indeed," Raphael said.

"You look...different."

Probably because he was no longer starving to death,Raphael thought but said nothing.

David scrambled back until he hit a tree trunk. He looked around frantically, searching for a means to escape. There was none. "What are you going to do to me?"

"First, we're going to have a little chat," Raphael said.

"About?" he stuttered.

"My brother, the men you work for, how you got involved with all this." He shrugged. "I’m sure other things will come to mind."

He swallowed hard. "Once I tell you everything you want then what?" David asked. "Are you going to kill me?"

"I suggest you save your breath," Raphael parroted David's own words back to him. "You're going to need it."


© 2023 by Jordan Summers