Vanessa double checked the address hastily written on a scrap of paper, looked back at the ramshackle house with its peeling coat of paint, and wondered if her sister - the infamous mercenary - was really living here. Was she down on her luck and going through a rough patch? Is that why she’d made contact with her after so long? Vanessa tucked the paper back into her coat and added that to her growing list of questions for her elder sibling. She drew a calming breath and walked up the path to the front door.
As she raised a hand to knock, she heard muffled voices in the room just behind the door. Whoever lived here was home, at least. She knocked with three sharp raps: an old familiar rhythm her sister would surely recognize. The conversation behind the door paused. A voice she didn’t know said, “I’ll get it. You keep mopping.”
The door swung open and a young woman - late teens, Vanessa guessed - with dark hair and a curious expression answered. She held the ragged remains of a hand in her rusty prosthetic’s grip and sized Vanessa up with a long glance. “Can I help you?”
Vanessa tried not to stare at the hand. “Um, yes. Hello, I’m looking for Viktoria?”
The girl’s expression brightened. “Oh! You’re her sister. She’s expecting you.”
“Who is it, Alyce?” Her sister’s unmistakable throaty voice called - more mature than the last she heard it, but hers all the same.
“It’s your sister,” Alyce said back, “the real one.”
The real one?
“Shit. Okay. Well, let her in. Don’t just stand there awkwardly.”
She stepped to the side and gestured for Vanessa to enter. As she crossed the threshold, the smell of dried blood, soap, lemon juice, and cold water overwhelmed her. With a disgruntled expression on her face, her sister pushed a mop across the hardwood floor. Vanessa stared at her half-shaved hairdo a long moment before deciding she liked that look on her elder sibling.
“I’ll give you a proper greeting as soon as I’m done cleaning up somebody’s mess.” She said with a pointed look at the adjacent room.
“He was trying to kill you in your sleep.” Viktoria’s voice echoed back, identical all the way down to inflection. “What was I supposed to do? Let him slit your throat?”
From the other room walked another Viktoria: a perfect copy in all ways from her build to her gait to the permanently disinterested cast of her face. Had her sister dabbled in magic solely to make a copy of herself? Was this a simulacrum around for the purpose of defending the house?
“You didn’t have to paint the walls with him.”
“Why… Why are there two of you?!” was all Vanessa could manage to say.
The Viktoria with the mop blew her hair out of her face. “The short version is something like… A doppelganger was made to kill me and take my place but chose not to and now we’re friends.”
“Hello, Vanessa!” The other Viktoria waved.
“That’s pretty much true.” Alyce said, “I was there.”
“So…” Vanessa said, pointing from one to the other, “which of you is the original?”
“Guess.” Both said at the same time with identical, infuriating smirks.
“Oh, and don’t try to test it with childhood memories. We share all that.” The Viktoria with the mop added.
“A riddle then?” Vanessa smiled and tapped on her chin with a finger. “You said the doppelganger was made to take your place. Are you a sorcerous creation or a native of Malifaux?”
“The latter” the other Viktoria said.
“Ahh, perfect. That means one of you will have a different magical resonance than the other.”
“You use magic?” Alyce eagerly interjected.
Vanessa nodded and focused on the magical energies of her sister and the copy. The two Viktorias shared a destiny - something that should have been impossible, yet they defied this improbability. One’s nature had bled into the other, making them both not quite human and not quite monster… but one more so than the other.
“Aha!” She cried triumphantly and pointed a finger at the other Viktoria. “You are the doppelganger. I had to look hard to catch that you’re not human at the core. That makes you,” she swung her finger back around to the Viktoria with the mop, “my insufferable big sis.”
“Guilty.” Viktoria said with a little smirk.
“You have no idea how happy I am to have someone else around who doesn’t just solve problems by stabbing them!” Alyce gushed.
“Shut up, Alyce,” both Viktorias said at the same time, “go back to hunting for body parts.”
“So how do you distinguish which Viktoria you’re talking about?” Vanessa asked.
Alyce leaned over the back of the sofa and toyed with the remains of the hand. “Most of the hired swords call your flesh and blood sister ‘Viktoria of Ashes’ because she uses a gun sometimes and the other ‘Viktoria of Blood’ because she doesn’t know the meaning of a clean kill, as evidenced by all the splatter on the walls right now. Taelor calls your sister ‘a lazy asshole’ and sometimes just ‘V’ and the copy ‘Number Two’ or sometimes ‘V.B.’ for short.”
Viktoria made a face that indicated she wasn’t dignifying that with a response and foisted the mop off onto her double. “Finish cleaning up your mess. ‘Nessa, let’s take your stuff upstairs so you can get settled and relax a little. I’ve got a spare room. It’s not splattered with blood. Promise.”
Vanessa nodded and picked up her bag. “Getting off my feet sounds nice.”
Upstairs, the oppressive blood scent subsided, giving way to the smell of dust, hints of mildew and human body oil. The master bedroom door hung open, revealing some kind of mattress on the floor haphazardly strewn with blankets and clothing. Boots, pocket change, spare weapons and underthings covered the floor. A large pair of boots too big and too heavy-duty to be Viktoria’s rested against the door frame. A man’s perhaps?
“Here you go.” Viktoria pushed the guest room door open.
She stepped into the room and looked around: on the small side, cleaner than the rest of the house. Viktoria had made an effort to welcome her.
“So, you’re looking good. All grown up and using magic.”
“Yeah.” Vanessa sat on the bed. “Graduated with honors. Recovered dozens of priceless artifacts. It’s going pretty well.”
“Bet mom’s proud of you.”
“Not as proud of me as she is of you.” The words were out of her mouth before she could stop them.
Viktoria’s shoulders tensed. “Really? You’ve been here maybe ten minutes and you’re already starting this with me? I thought after fifteen years you’d be over this.”
Viktoria rolled her eyes. “And I’m the insufferable one. I was hoping we could get off on the right foot. I’ve missed you.”
“Don’t lie to me. You haven’t contacted me in twelve years and now you miss me because I’m finally worthy of your attention.”
Her eyes grew cold with anger. “Once I got settled into my life after training in Nippon, I wrote to you every year on your birthday so I don’t know where the hell you get off thinking I don’t miss you. You've always been worthy of my attention. Just because other people favor me doesn’t mean I have ever thought less of you.”
“Wait. You really wrote to me every year?”
“Yes! Why would I lie about that?”
“Where did you send them?” Vanessa asked, concerned.
“Mom’s house, where else?”
She sighed and smiled ruefully at her sister. “Vickie, mom hasn’t lived at the house we grew up in for the better part of a decade. She moved to a smaller place not too long after you left.”
Viktoria grunted and blew the hair out of her eye. “Well, shit. Whoever lives at that address also got a sizable amount of money from me, too…”
Vanessa reached over and touched her sister’s hand. “I had no idea. I’ll give you her new address. ...so you’re doing okay?”
Viktoria blinked. “Yeah, why wouldn’t I be? Somebody spreading weird rumors about me?”
“Probably, but I was just a little worried. I mean, you’re living in a run down house in the slums with a teenage necromancer, your double and your boyfriend--”
“Boyfriend?” Viktoria interrupted, “who said anything about a boyfriend?”
“I just guessed.” Vanessa said, “Alyce mentioned a ‘Taylor’ who gives you affectionately insulting nicknames and doesn’t want to be called your henchman, and I saw a pair of men’s boots in your room, so I thought-”
She stiffened and her expression flattened. “First, Taelor is a woman. Second, she just leaves her stuff here. She doesn’t really live with me and she definitely isn’t my boyfriend. Alyce doesn’t live here either, for that matter!”
“So why is she answering your door and hanging around while you clean?”
“Dead body parts. But also because she’s been around since I came through the breach. Her employer… Mentor? He’s a creep. She ‘spies’ on me and I keep her away from him. When we met she reminded me so much of you, so I guess that’s why I put up with her. I rented the place as a stop-gap because a job wouldn’t pay me without a permanent address. Really the only other person who lives here besides me - us - is our student.”
“Does she have a name?”
Vanessa raised an eyebrow. “You said that like it was a question. Even street urchins have something they go by.”
Viktoria sighed. “She’s either unwilling or unable to tell me.”
“Are you sure she’s human?”
Vanessa sighed with exasperation. “And you didn’t think to find out?”
Another aggravated sigh.
“What? She wanted to learn from me, and it happened to line up with renting this house so she’s staying here now.”
“What if she turns out to be some kind of soul-sucking monstrosity?”
Viktoria shrugged a shoulder carelessly. “I already spend most of my time with an inhuman creature who’s acting as a copy of myself. I’ve been living here for quite some time. Anyone I run into could be some kind of soul-sucking monstrosity. Hell, I’m reasonably certain some of my mercenary colleagues fall into that category. I’ve never been afraid of that.”
“You’ve never been afraid of anything.” Vanessa said quietly.
Viktoria rubbed the back of her neck and in an equally quiet tone said, “Guilty.” She paused and cleared her throat. “Look. This is my weird life. I fight and kill people for a living. Most of the time I sleep in train cars or carriages or hotel rooms. I’m roommates with monsters. For the first time in my life, I have a place I belong. It’s a bloody, transitory, and unusual life. Are you sure that’s something you want to be a part of?”
Vanessa stood and pulled her sister into a tight embrace. “Yes. I do.”