Assailed by memories drawn out by the smell of sulfur, Tobias closed his eyes and was drawn almost a hundred and fifty years into the past.
White-hot pain flamed in his chest. He surged upright with a low gasping cry, arms and legs lashing out. The sheet covering his nudity fluttered to the floor. He heard another gasp, a sharp clatter. Shaking his head, he tried to dispel the lingering fog in his brain.
Who was he? Where was he?
He looked up and gazed at a young man wearing a white apron over his dark suit. Eyes wide, the man shuffled several steps away, one hand groping behind him as he backed toward the door.
Tobias drew in a breath and put a hand to his chest, noticing that the sharp pain had already faded. But for what purpose had that man been cutting on him?
What the càorí was going on here?
He got to his feet, stumbled and gripped the edge of the wooden table to catch his balance. His eyes watered. It was so bright, brighter than he was used to, the air no longer a diffused blue. More…yellow. His vision blurred. Focused. He raised his hand to his face and felt stubble on his jaw. He stared at the other man, trying to piece together his past, aware almost as if seeing through a filter that the young man had stopped moving, and now watched him in shocked fascination.
Everything was strange. Nothing was familiar. It was if he hadn’t existed until he awoke on this table, being cut into as if he were some sort of science experiment.
Pain streaked through his skull. He clutched his head and moaned. Voices in his head. Calling out for him. Trying to make him remember.
He ground his jaw against agony stabbing like knives into his brain. A deep breath. Then another.
His eyes widened, and he straightened. He remembered. Caine. His name, his new name, was Tobias Caine. Who or what he’d been before remained hidden. He needed details. Holding the gaze of the young man, he exerted his will to keep him quiet and complacent. It was time for answers. “Where am I?” he asked in a raspy voice.
It hurt. Everything hurt. From his toes to the top of his head, he was in pain. His eyes burned. He was cold, too. Something sticky on his chest, his hands. He glanced down. Red.
Need flared. He had to gain sustenance, or this newly acquired host body would die. He didn’t know how he knew that or what instinct drove him. All he knew was that he needed blood.
He looked again at the other man, standing there shaking in his neat suit and clean white apron. A physician, perhaps?
He remembered the pain in his chest.
Not a physician. More like a butcher.
But he’d do. First, information.
“Where am I?” he asked again.
“You’re in the mortuary. You…you were…not alive. I swear! You were killed not more than an hour ago in a shoot-out with Whiskey Pete. I was…” He shook his head and stared at Tobias’s chest. “I was given permission to use you…” He frowned. “I mean, the corpse…use the corpse for anatomical study.”
Tobias glanced down. Three round holes, centered over his heart, gaping and bloody. Another on the back of his right hand, the edges of the skin peppered with black. He sniffed. Recognized the smell. Gunpowder.
He frowned. How did he know that smell? It made his gut go tight. Unpleasant. Disturbing. Brought something from the back of his mind to hover on the edge of his memory. Something painful. Something he knew but didn’t want to remember.
He looked up at the doctor and held his arms out to his sides. Best to make the man think he’d been in error than try to explain something that, at this moment, Tobias had no explanation for. “Obviously you were mistaken. I am very much alive.”
At least, as alive as this alien dimension allowed him to be. He wasn’t sure how he knew that, either, but he knew this was not home. He glanced around the small room. Other than a few torturous-looking weapons, it gave no clues as to his whereabouts. Sounds filtered in from outside—sounds of the clip-clop of horses’ hooves, voices of people talking, wagon wheels rolling down the dirt road.
It still meant nothing to him, to the new Tobias. Nor did this new language he spoke and understood with this…human…brain.
Whatever that was.
He drew in another breath. The air seemed different, too. More oxygen than he was used to. Maybe that was what made him feel lightheaded.
He glanced down and grimaced. That woozy feeling in his head could be because this body he now inhabited was dead.
The need for blood grew even more. He looked up, his eyes burning with hunger.
The doctor took a small step backward, clearly trying to put distance between himself and the undead naked madman with whom he now conversed. His gaze skittered to the scalpel on the floor as if trying to decide if he should pick it up and use it on Tobias again.
Tobias took away the choice by bending and scooping it up. He tossed it behind him. He didn’t think the doctor could do any more damage to him than had already been done, but he’d just as soon not risk it. Besides, that cut had hurt and he was all for avoiding pain whenever possible.
“Who are you? What are you?” the young man asked, horror pitching his voice high and tight.
Both very good questions. Tobias caught a sharp breath as a memory niggled at him. He had taken a trip, one performed out of duty. Because of his failure. He had…
He narrowed his eyes as the memory became clearer. The essence of what he was—he supposed some would call it a soul—had been stripped from its corporeal shell and put in a holding area usually reserved for prisoners, both political and criminal. Whenever a rift opened between dimensions, the holding cells were opened and the incorporeal entities were sucked through to whatever fate awaited them.
In that state Tobias had also traveled through the rift between dimensions to catch and execute the assassin Natchook, but that was the last real memory he had until he had awoken beneath this man’s knife. He had no idea where, or when, he was.
He knew this much—once on this side of the rift there was no turning back and no one knew where they would go or what they would be. But the psychopath Natchook, in whatever form he now took, could not be allowed to escape his grasp again.
Tobias had made the sacrifice, had given up his world, life as he’d known it, to set right a wrong. But at present he was naked, confused, and very hungry.
He took a step forward. Sunlight from a window on the west side of the room shafted over his bare foot. Pain flared. He hissed and backed away from the light. Glancing down, he saw a red burn on the top of his foot.
What kind of hell had he come to, where light could injure him?
The doctor’s muttered “Oh, my God” was accompanied by a well-manicured hand clapping over his mouth. His gaze drifted down Tobias’s body, lingered on the three bullet wounds in his chest, and came back up again. He dropped his hand to his side, throat moving with his hard swallow, drawing Tobias’s gaze there. “You were dead, I tell you. There’s no mistakin’ it.” He shook his head, his eyes going even wider. He looked as confused as Tobias felt. “You were dead.”
“And I will tell you once again that you were mistaken.” Tobias moved closer, so close he could feel warmth coming from the man. The chill in his body began to dissipate as he drew heat from the doctor.
This close he could see the pulse pounding in the man’s throat, the sweat trickling from his brow. He could hear his heart beating like a frantic bird trapped in a cage. He could smell…
Fear. And it prompted a physical reaction Tobias would never—could never—have expected.
Pain erupted in his mouth as canines elongated. Following a primal instinct, Tobias bent the man over his arm, sinking his fangs into the soft, giving flesh of the doctor’s neck.
The man’s cry was muffled by the sound of a heart struggling to beat once more, the pulse echoing in Tobias’s ears. He closed his eyes. Wet, hot sustenance flowed down his throat, bringing with it…
Physical elation such as he’d never before known.
Atrophied muscles strengthened. The wounds in his chest and hand healed. Veins and arteries plumped. Memories surged, his own and remnants from the man whose body he now possessed.
He eased his hold on the doctor and settled him gently on the floor, taking a moment to make sure the man still lived. Tobias sensed it was unnecessary for him to kill in order to survive, though he was acutely aware of the emotional high such an act might provide.
But no matter what form he took, he was an Enforcer of the High Laws, not a willful murderer. His own newly retrieved recollections told him that much. He stilled as more and more memories belonging to the human Tobias Caine flooded his mind.
Flashes of images. A beautiful woman in a long, billowing dress. Two dark-haired children playing on the small lawn. The gray sleeve of a uniform. Plumes of smoke from cannon and gunfire.
The memories surged, so strong that he smelled the acrid odor of gunpowder, tasted blood and sweat as it dripped onto his lips. Felt the stifling heat of summertime battle in woolen uniforms and ill-fitting boots. Heard the shrill battle cries of men in a battle of brother against brother.
He winced and dropped his head, trying to block these painful reminisces that were not his own, yet had become part of him now that he had claimed this man’s body. Stumbling home after spending months in a prisoner of war camp, only to find everything he’d held dear gone. His family murdered. His home burned to the ground. And the three bastards who’d done the deed had been seen boasting over booze.
It had taken him almost a year, but he’d tracked two of them down and exacted his vengeance. The third he’d finally found here, in Prescott, Arizona. But before he could kill the last man who’d murdered his family, Tobias had been stopped by a drunken cowboy’s bullets.
It seemed he was a murderer, after all. The human Tobias Caine, in his grief and rage, had taken the law into his own hands, had allowed his emotions to lead him down that dark path. Before he could finish it and try to deal with the remorse and guilt caused by his own descent into unlawfulness, he had died.
But now he was reborn, in a way. The new Tobias could perhaps help the old Tobias gain some redemption. He would make sure the last man paid for his crime—he owed the human that much—and then he’d focus his attention on completing his mission.
He had gone through the rift right behind the lunatic Natchook, so his quarry should be close. Tobias would find him and carry out the death sentence that had been handed down by the Tribunal. Then he would try to make a life for himself in this strange, primitive new world.
This place called…Earth.
He had no other choice. There was no going back.