Outside the tavern called The Copper Ox, the weather was absolutely dreadful. The thick rain beat against the three-story building in a deluge that seemed to make the roof itself groan under its weight. It was freezing, too–unusually so for this time of year–and thus everyone had rushed inside to seek shelter and warmth–both from the roaring fire in the hearth and from the potions the barkeep made from spirits in dusty glasses.
Inside the tavern, the atmosphere was rowdy and boisterous–everyone was having a good time. Old gents were swapping “war stories” which had nothing to do with the war but were about events at home. There were a few tables where women were doing the same–clinking together tankards of malt beer and other, stronger tinctures, laughing uproariously.
The barkeep, a woman known only by the name Triss, smiled as she wiped some glasses down. Business was always good when the weather was shit, but damn was it ever so fine tonight. Her eyes swept over the tavern, recognizing a fair few folks who were regulars–some out-of-towners.
Plinth, her only server that night, came up with a tray and a weary expression. “Table 4 needs some more stout, I swear they’re gonna bleed us dry.”
Triss poured a few more tankards and slapped them on the tray.
“If we run out, we run out. By that time they’ll be so drunk we can substitute other things,” she said, her eyes gleaming dangerously. “Like that Bowarger Ale we can’t get rid of.”
Plinth smiled and took the tray away, disappearing into the crowd.
Triss swiped the counter with a wet rag and was in the middle of wiping away a stray bit of beer when there was a ringing crash of ceramic meeting the floor.
The crowd immediately came to a hush, and Triss looked up, confused. Suddenly all eyes were on her as she walked from behind the bar over towards a table in the far corner, where a man was slumped over, his arm drifting back and forth lazily. On the floor were the remains of a mug.
“It’s all right. He’s clearly had too much to drink. Everybody carry on!” said Triss loudly, waving her hands.
There was a quiet murmur and then the murmur grew to a loud buzzing as the conversations began again, as if nothing had even happened. Triss studied the man. He was old–a long, grey beard poking out from under his flat cap, which now lay askew. He was dressed in a black vest and brown trousers, shoes polished to a heavy shine.
Gently she got closer to the man and tapped him on the shoulder. He did not react.
“Hey mate,” she said in a soft voice. “C’mon, I think you’ve been drinking a bit too much.”
Still, he did not move, and Triss’s heart began to beat louder in her chest.
“Sir?” she whispered, now prodding him very hard.
He did not react even still.
Plinth had now come over, obviously concerned. “What’s wrong?”
“I think…I think he might be dead,” she said, hoarsely.
Plinth looked at her with a quick glance, and taking both of his hands, pushed the man’s shoulders so that he sat upright. Triss made a small yelp as she saw the whites of his eyes, his mouth hanging slack-jawed.
He was, indeed, dead.
Before she could react further, the front door opened with a crashing bang, which startled Triss even further.
Framed in the doorway was a man, which was not in itself peculiar. What was peculiar was that he looked exactly like the dead man who was not more than a few feet from her. Everything from the beard down to the shoes was precisely the same–not one detail different.
Triss was shocked, but no one else was. Plinth was too busy looking at the dead body. The crowd around them was all knocking back drinks in merriment.
The man shut the door and began to walk over to Triss and Plinth, who stood stock still.
“I see you met my doppelganger,” said the man in a serene voice, gesturing toward the dead man. “This is our night, after all.”
Triss stared at him, completely confused. “A…what now?”
“Doppelganger. There are always two of us in the world, but only one can survive in close proximity to the other. I just happened to survive while he did not.”
He said this as if it was the most natural thing in the world.
“Don’t worry, he’ll be gone by morning. May I have a beer, please? It’s been a long journey.” He sat down at the table opposite the dead man, clasping his fingers together.
“Uh…” said Plinth. “Should…should I ask him to leave?” he whispered to Triss.
Triss’s mouth was agape, and it took her a few moments to shake her head. “No…no…just uh…go get him some beer.”
Plinth nodded quickly, his eyes darting between the man and the dead man across from him as he walked away.
“My name is Benjamin, by the way,” the man said after Plinth walked away. “What is yours?”
“Triss. An interesting name. I do wonder what yours will be.”
“I’m sorry?” she said, confused. “My name is Triss.”
Benjamin turned to her and smiled. “I meant your doppelganger, dear.”
A chill struck Triss’s heart. “I don’t…know what you’re talking about.”
He smiled wider. “All in good time.”
Plinth came back to the table, nervously shaking as he set the beer down. “I can call the authorities,” he whispered to Triss in her ear.
She shook her head. A dead body was bad business. Besides, no one had appeared to kill him. Or had they?
There was another crashing noise, and the crowd went quiet again. A woman had fallen backward in her chair. Rushing over to her, Triss knew in her heart that the woman was already dead.
Panic began to ensure–the crowd clearly noticed what had happened this time.
“Is this…is this poison?” roared someone.
“Of course not!” yelled Triss. “That…that man!” she said, pointing towards Benjamin. “He is doing something peculiar!” However, no one seemed to care. Everyone was in a panic, scrambling to grab their jackets as they rushed out the door, mugs, and liquid sloshing everywhere as they were knocked to the ground. Triss stood rooted to the spot, and Plinth was pressed up against the wall, very pale.
Benjamin grinned wider and wider. “Only the strong survive, Triss,” he said, raising his mug. “I hope you survive till morning.”
She looked at the clock–it was nearly 4:30 AM already. The storm was still coming down heavily, and the door opened again.
The bar was now empty except for the three people who were still alive, and the two bodies who were not.
An exact duplicate of the woman who had died stood in the doorway, taking off her long gloves. Looking over towards Benjamin, she waved. “It finally feels good to take control!” she declared, laughing. The laughter then left her face as she dropped dead to the floor.
“What the fuck is happening?” screamed Triss.
Benjamin looked confused and then shrugged. “Sometimes there’s two. Sometimes three. I lose track of them from time to time. I just tell them where to go.”
“Why are they all coming here?”
“Honestly…” said Benjamin, he said, looking around. “I didn’t pick the place, he did.”
“Triss…I don’t…I don’t feel so good,” said Plinth, now clutching his chest.
“Don’t…don’t you dare, Plinth,” she said hoarsely.
Plinth gasped and cried out in pain as he fell to the floor. She didn’t bother to go check, she knew he was dead.
Moments later the door opened again, and Pseudo-Plinth stood in the doorway, his nose wrinkling in disgust as he pushed the woman’s dead body away with his foot.
“Oh heavens, how revolting,” he said. “Benjamin, there are about three more comings, I think.”
Benjamin reached into his vest and pulled out a pocket watch.
“Yes, that seems about right,” he said, nodding. “You can either take over what he was doing or go about your way. Either way, you’ll need to return to this spot annually.”
Pseudo-Plinth grimaced. “Annually?”
“Only way to keep your life force going permanently, I’m afraid.”
Triss finally found her voice again. “What the fuck are you?”
Benjamin looked at her. “I told you. Doppelgangers.”
“No, what are you…really?”
He paused, deep in thought. “Some call us shapeshifters. Demons, I guess. Look, all you really need to know is that we’re born into this world with one purpose: kill or be killed.”
“If we survive, we live forever,” said Pseudo-Plinth, dreamily.
“But only one can survive,” said Benjamin holding up one finger. “One. That is the natural order of things. We just take our chances.”
“Where..where do you come from? How are you killing people?” said Triss.
Benjamin sighed. “Look, I don’t really feel like explaining this. It’s not like you have long anyways.”
“You’re in my fucking tavern. I have a right to know.”
Benjamin paused at this, took another swig of his beer, and sighed. “Nature doesn’t like when two of us get together. She’s a nasty bitch. So our souls fight for the physical space. One wins. Usually us. That’s it.”
The door opened and two more figures came in. She recognized them as other patrons from the tavern, those who had run away earlier. One man, one woman.
“Two more join the fold. Welcome, brother and sister,” said Benjamin.
“What now? I don’t know where mine went.” said the man.
“Feel it out. You’ll find them,” said Benjamin, gesturing towards the doorway.
Pseudo-Plinth walked towards the bar and Triss broke a mug, holding the shards in her hand as if to fight.
“You don’t move another inch,” she said.
Pseudo-Plinth held up his hands. “I’m just going to keep working as if I always have, lady. There’s no need for alarm.”
“You’re a god damned monster,” she whispered.
Pseudo-Plinth wrinkled his nose and then laughed. “Years of waiting to take my natural spot in the world, and yet still, I am called a monster. What a night.”
Triss suddenly felt pain in her chest, and she cried out in agony, dropping the mug on the floor.
Benjamin stood up abruptly, grinning. “Yes…finally.”
Her eyes began to water, it was like the pain of a thousand needles hitting her skin–and then suddenly it was over. Heaving, she caught her breath and looked up. Benjamin looked terrified.
“No! NO!” he screamed. He rushed out of the tavern and into the street, the other two patrons following.
There in the middle of the street–even with the rain, was the unmistakable figure of someone who looked just like Triss. Collapsed on the ground, she was holding her chest, her face a blank sheet of shock.
“What on earth did you do?” hissed Benjamin. “Never have I heard of an original killing their doppelganger.”
“You…you said sometimes we win.”
“I lied,” said Benjamin quietly.
The rain suddenly let up, and Triss looked up at the sky. There was a faint hint of pinkness poking through the clouds, and light began to stream gently.
She looked down, and Pseudo-Triss was gone, no trace of her on the ground. Benjamin and the others quietly began to back away. “This place is cursed,” whispered Benjamin. “We cannot return.”
The other patrons stared at him. “But what about our life force? We need to come–”
“We cannot FUCKING risk it.” said Benjamin, hissing. “We will find another way.”
And just like that, the three doppelgangers ran away.
Triss stood there for a moment, and then went back inside. Pseudo-Plinth was picking up pieces from the floor.
“Get the fuck out,” she said. “No doppelgangers allowed.” He looked up at her, in shock.
“You..you survived? But how?”
“Guess we’ll never know,” she said. Pseudo-Plinth stared at her, and then in fear, bolted out the front door.
The place was a wreck, and Triss began to shake violently as the events of that evening began to crash over her in waves.
Looking back at the table where the old man had died, there was a scrap of paper and something on top–something she hadn’t noticed before.
She slowly walked over to it, and picked it up–it was a crystal of some sort. Pocketing it, she picked up the piece of paper and saw that it was a tarot card of The Fool.
Turning it over, there was a scribble on the back.
“Fear not the one who looks like thee,
For I poisoned her first.
Now you must do the same for me
Great must be your thirst,
For there are always three”
Triss slowly put the Tarot card down with trembling hands. The doorway creaked, and in walked a man who looked just like Benjamin.
“Hello, I’m John…I must be late,” he said, with great concern, looking around the room.
“No, John,” she said, reaching into her pocket for the crystal. “I’d say you’re right on schedule.”