Everyone finds themselves eventually. Some people find it in a cause, a purpose for which they can spend their days living blissfully fulfilled. Some people find it in a person, that one other who makes the days seem easier, better, simpler. Some people find it in assisting others, helping them through their toughest times.
This was not where Irving Sepia found himself. He had purposes, people, cries for help, but none of it made him happy. None of it made him contented.
He was sitting in a room, hand on the shoulder of a woman crying her eyes out. He couldn't make eye contact. Not out of guilt. His hands were clean. Irving Sepia could not make eye contact because he felt nothing.
“There was nothing that could be done.”
He had journeyed for too long. He had been to far too many places, seen far too many things. They were beginning to blur.
“Everyone in the room died.”
The woman's husband had been part of a massacre. A sleepy Aollo City office that was turned upside down, every worker inside being carved open. It was clean and meticulous: every death resulted from a wound that exposed the heart. The heart itself was intact. The incision itself was the killer.
Seventeen Office Workers bled to death, and no one could help.
Irving Sepia stood, a look of shame on his face. A look of shame very intimately linked to despair. The woman's husband perished. It was not this that bothered Sepia. It was how little he cared.
He took his coat from a hook and headed outside, into the artificial sunlight of the Mas City Strip.
“What do you want from me?”
Sepia's face was overcast with shadows inside his dingy cell.
“Don't give me that routine. You're at the sight of a major massacre and I'm not meant to think you're involved?”
Sepia's face was facing the floor, looking away.
“I just stumbled onto it. I didn't have anything to do with it.”
“Oh yeah, buddy? You ain't cooperating. You ain't witnessing. You ain't doing anything but showing up at the scene of a brutal attack before anyone else does.”
Sepia's face still refusing to look at anyone as his interrogator is replaced with another man. A calmer man. Less aggressive.
“Irving Sepia. Age Unknown. Initially believed to be part of a long line of men with that name, stretching back through history.” The man shut his folder loudly, enough to make Sepia look up from his particularly interesting piece of floor. “There, now we can talk properly.”
The man, seemingly in his forties, seemed an unusual sight. His capturers had been Rawen's typical policemen – this man, however, did not appear to have much to do with them. Even if he was in fact some form of higher up in the Rawen Police Force, he was dressing very much against the standard.
“Who are you?”
“Then, we come to the eighties. There are conflicting reports that put you in several places at once. Others that deny you were ever there. As though you were something of an... anomaly.”
The man's bright red scarf hung low over his dark jacket. His face looked old. About forty, but as if it'd put years on him he'd never needed to experience.
“Then, and this is the part I really like, one report puts you marking out a particular set of runes and symbols.” The man placed a photograph in front of him. “Suddenly, you shift from myth to time traveller.”
The man leaned forward, smiling.
“I hate time travel.”
“Don't we all?”
The man laughed, reopening his folder and adjusting his paperwork. Straightening up.
“Have you heard of the Process, Mr. Sepia?”
The man unravelled his scarf and placed it on his lap.
“There, that's more comfortable. It's warm, isn't it?”
Sepia did not respond.
“Well, I'm not surprised you aren't aware of what the Process is. Even I am not entirely aware, and I've been tasked with investigating it.”
“Who are you?”
A repeated question. More curt, this time. Emphasis.
“I am former Leader Red.”
“Funny name for a kid.”
“No stranger than Irving Sepia. Besides, if I'm a kid, you're one too.”
“I hear you have a talent for perception.” Red leaned over. “Tell me everything you've garnered from this so far.”
“I take it that by Leader, you mean Tribe Leader. I guess people trust you. You're nothing to do with the police. Place like this, you'd need to be showing ID all the time unless you were very well known. Your wallet is the only thing in your left pocket. Right pocket shows signs of two cellphones, likely different carriers. You've nothing in jacket because of the way you're moving, you're too free. Anything of value in there and you'd be slightly trepidatious. The file you're using is a plain folder. I've seen one other here, similar make but with an official insignia. Means you're not using the stock stationary, means it came from outside. You're in your early forties. Likely just forty, given that your coat is approximately six months old because of the way you're wearing it. You're comfortable in it, which means you've worn it a few times, ergo it's old, but it looks fairly new, so you only wear it on special occasions. Means this is a special occasion for you, and that I'm growing a bit bored of the lock-and-key act.”
The man adjusted his hat slightly and stood up. The scarf fell to the floor as he stepped away from the Cell's lonely desk.
“I'm going to be blunt, Sepia. Your help is needed.”
“Why should I help you?”
“Because I am willing to offer you a job with a significant salary, an apartment and permanent immunity.”
“ 'Permanent Immunity'?”
Sepia sighed, shaking his wrists a bit. The shackles around them were growing uncomfortable. Shackles were shackles, no matter how futuristic their design.
“You're a time traveller. You adventure. That brings certain issues with it. I'm offering you complete immunity from the legal system within the borders of the major nations of the world. No arrests, no criminal records, nothing. You will be a blank slate, moving as you please, never having to worry about this happening.”
“And how can I help you?”
Sepia was enticed by the offer. He'd been involved in too many petty problems because he was a nobody wherever he went. This would certainly help things.
“One year's employment under my watch.”
“And what do you do, exactly?”
Sepia sat back in his chair, smug. A job offer of this kind was generally pretty interesting.
“I'm currently heading an organisation dedicated to investigating some of the more... unusual occurrences in the nations of Rawen and Towan.”
“What, you guys catch Aliens or something?”
Red was pacing the room, back and forth, uneasy.
“The world we live in? Plenty of weird going on without having to go that far.”
Sepia laughed, looking down at his shackles for a second.
“So, can I get these off if I say yes?”
“Guess I've got no option.”
Sepia took a drag on a cigarette as he surveyed the carnage. An entire floor in a Aollo office block, murdered. Every other floor had cleared out an hour before the attack. Fourteen Office Workers, Three Cleaners. He preferred to think of them all as Office Workers.
It made things easier.
“Medical guys tell me the incisions are deliberate. Like someone was looking for a bit of exploratory surgery with their murder.”
Red wiped his hands clean. Even when he had been wearing gloves, it still got in. It got everywhere.
“You mean like body snatchers?”
Sepia took another drag and exhaled. The smoke sifted through the room slowly.
“Anything like that going on, I'd say its in our territory.”
“I'm sorry to say there isn't anything missing.”
Red paused for a moment.
“Didn't ever think I'd say that about a massacre.”
“So, nobody stole anything? Then why the precision?”
“Every victim was cut open so that their heart was exposed.”
He cricked his neck a little bit.
“Any sign it might have been about the bones?”
“No. Everyone had the incision around the heart. If it was about the ribs or something, it'd be either in a different place, or more hack and slash. Ribs don't need a lot to expose.”
Sepia sighed, taking another drag.
“Melee! You find anything?”
A young woman, black haired and fresh faced, wandered over. She removed her standard issue gloves and tucked them into her red jacket. The looked out of place, but then again, she did too.
“Haven't found anything. No prints we can identify, no fibres, nothing. The CSI job isn't going to cut it here. It'll take some pretty slick upstairs assistance to work this one out.”
It was Red's turn to ask questions.
“Yeah. Cuts out when the murder happens though.”
“That's certainly a coincidence. What do you think, Sepia?”
Sepia wasn't listening. He was staring at the girl, still amazed. The resemblance was uncanny. He had trouble understanding it.
“Well, here we go. Time to meet your co-workers.”
Red opened the door to a fairly bland looking office. Art Deco wallpaper that should have been taken down years ago, and a black and white checkered floor. He liked a good checkered floor. They made him dizzy when he was tired, and that was always worth a laugh. There were three desks in the room, with a glass-surrounded room at the back that looked like a separate office of some description.
“This here's Lucille MacKaelan. Former park ranger, joined us after she led an undercover op to investigate some ritual slaughters in her area.”
“Hello!” Waved a blonde woman. She was around thirty years old. She looked to have a good ten years on Red. “I'm Lucy. Nice to meet you.” She bumped a cup of coffee over, the splash narrowly missing Sepia's shoes. “Sorry! Sorry!”
“Don't mention it.” He narrowed his eyes somewhat. “Did you say MacKaelan?”
“You related to Roy and Krystal MacKaelan at all? The scientist and the engineer?”
“Yeah, they're my parents. Do you know them?”
Sepia paused a moment.
“Only by reputation.”
“Well, I have a little bit of my parents' talent. I was an engineer before I was a park ranger. I'm pretty handy with a wrench. Or a computer.”
He turned to the other girl. She was sat at a desk, head bowed. She seemed to be praying.
“Beings whom we may never understand, grant me the wisdom to...”
The girl looked up quickly. Her jet black hair was long and cumbersome, but her face was what intrigued Sepia the most. He had seen it before. Last time he'd seen it, the hair had been red. A few more freckles. But still the same. He paused, staring. Making sure.
“What's the matter, Sepia?”
Red placed a hand on his shoulder, worried.
Sepia stumbled backwards, a little surprised.
“Does the name Void mean anything to you?”
“Noun, an empty space, emptiness?”
Sepia sighed. It wasn't disappointment – it was relief.
“Sorry. You look almost exactly like someone I used to know.”
“One of those faces, I guess... Sorry, Hello. I'm Mae Lee-West. Call me Melee. I will brutally hurt you if you don't.”
“Melee here is our... well, I call her a specialist. She's versed in enough things that she generally ends up being the one who gets hands on with things.”
“Fastest witch in Mas.” She said, smiling.
Red smiled and pointed out the window. “This office is part of a building on the Mas City Strip.”
The lights of the city were bright even during the day. It ran forever, Sepia thought, moving over to the window and staring out at what seemed to be an unending run of department stores, casinos, skyrises and, perched sneakily behind a slightly smaller building than the rest on a connecting road, Sepia could make out the familiar markings of a hospital.
“Mas... So, you've brought me to Rawen. I thought it looked familiar.” Sepia stared out the window intently.
“No traces of you being here after 1972. Things must have changed.” Red leaned on the window and smiled. “Mas, Rawen's thriving centre of commerce and entertainment. We're on the Strip, it's sort of an unofficial name for what pretty much became main street about 15 years ago. Suburbs to the west, sea to the south and east, national park to the north west, apartment buildings all the way northwards. Except for the Tribe Headquarters. They're up there too.”
“Sounds exciting.” Sepia said, taking in the view.
“Right, well, there's only one other member of our group, but he's out at the moment, so moving onwards.”
Red, a look of exasperation on his face, pointed to the empty desk. Nothing but a chair, a lamp and a nameplate that said “IRVING SEPIA”
“That'll be yours. Melee handles our data gathering. Lucille is our interpersonal liason. I'm team leader. You're in charge of field work.”
“You'll figure it out.”
“Lucy. Tell me about the survivor.”
Sepia was leaning against a wall. The whole team had gathered, reporting back. Like old times, Sepia thought.
“His name is Zeke. I'm guessing wrong place, right time.”
“He left the building. Coffee run. He found the bodies. The security footage backs this up. I'd call that pretty life-saving timing.”
“Long coffee run.”
“That's exactly why I'm not counting him as a suspect. It wasn't long at all. Six minutes, tops. The coffee place even delivers, so the only reason he was there instead of calling them was because he was just picking up his laundry on the way. If you want to suggest an office worker can do all of this as precisely as it was in under six minutes, be my guest.”
Sepia rubbed his chin, thinking. Cliché, but he was used to it.
“Could we be dealing with a group?”
“With the lack of prints? Possibly. Would explain why it's so thorough – someone watching their backs. You'd have thought someone would have seen though.”
“Yeah. Everyone get back to the office. I think we've got everything we can find.”
“Get the list of workers and their families.”
Red eyed Sepia suspiciously.
“Someone has to tell them. No point in dragging it out by sending two cops to do it all.”
Red's face took a tone of concern as Sepia headed for the exit.
FRIDAY: 10:30 AM.
“Sorry I'm late, everyone. I had some trouble getting my hands on the Mürenruffer Manuscripts, but I think... Oh, hello.” Edward Blackwood stood before Sepia, adjusting his glasses somewhat. “You must be the new guy. Edward Blackwood, nice to meet you.”
“I think we've met, actually.” Sepia tentatively took Blackwood's hand, shaking it tightly. If it was indeed the same man, Blackwood had aged since he'd last seen him. It had been roughly thirty years, by his reckoning. The aggressive man in his thirties was now well into his sixties, and it left Sepia slightly disheartened. For all his travelling, Sepia wasn't entirely sure he had aged appropriately. He saw lines on his face appearing occasionally, but he'd lost track of time. He'd lost track of his age.
But it felt like longer.
“We have?” Blackwood adjusted his collar, a puzzled look appearing on his face. “I don't remember.”
“No, you wouldn't.” Sepia smiled weakly and sat down at his desk. “So, you were saying something?”
“Oh, right. The Mürenruffer Manuscripts. I finally managed to track them down.” He raised his book into the air, before setting it down on the only empty desk. It was already covered in texts and scraps of paper, and Sepia quickly came to the conclusion that Blackwood handled the more theory-based aspects of the operation.
“So, what's a muffin man?” Sepia said, leaning forward.
“The Mürenruffer Manuscripts are ancient records. They're a fairly standard set of proto-Larenian texts, which means most of the content is addressed in more detail in the Larenian Chronicle, the Trial of Ayth, Wyrnon's Codex etcetera, but the Mürenruffer Manuscripts detail a particular form of ritual sacrifice present in these proto-Larenian civilisations.”
“So?” Red folded his arms and narrowed his gaze a little. “What's the significance?”
“I'm thinking that the massacre Sepia walked in on was one of these sacrifices.”
“Cultists. Great.” Lucy rubbed her eyes, looking tired. “I love cultists. They make me all tingly.”
FRIDAY: 10:30 PM.
Red was standing in front of a digital blackboard when Sepia entered the room. He tapped the screen as a series of pictures appeared.
“Sorry for the rush job. Didn't really get the chance to explain the back and forth.”
“I think I've got it. Seen something like it before. Instant transport via digitisation. Not entirely sure of the science but I'm sure it's perfectly sound.”
“Yeah, something like that.” Red pointed to one of the pictures. “We have the tech in every major city around the world. It's a government thing, to be honest. We've only access because I asked for it in my contract.”
“Your licence is only two weeks old.”
“How did you know that?”
“Box in the top right of the screen when you're running the software. Had LED and then a date. Figured it was probably closer to Licence Expiry Date than Light Emitting Diode.” Sepia smiled and picked up a marker. “Bring up the two incidents.”
“OK...” Red tapped the screen several times. Images of the Aollo incident were set alongside images of a grizzly massacre beside a lake. Sepia recognised it as where he'd appeared. “Orpheus Building, Aollo City, Rawen. Vulca Beach, Vulca, Towan.”
“Beside the body count? None. Aollo was deliberate and targeted. A single office block, very specific wounds, definitely not what you'd call carnage. Just... death. Vulca was anyone passing through in a mile-wide radius. Tourists, staff, residents, everything. Blood, guts, dismembering, everything.”
“So, two murders. No connection. No leads. No nothing.”
“That's certainly what you'd call an auspicious start.”
CHAPTER ONE: JUDGEMENT.