To Kill the Sunset

Lave is walking through the market when someone fails to kill her. It's a bright, sunny day, though the distant hills are still marred by the tattered remains of the fog that always seems to find its way in off the sea and the breeze stinks of fish. Some fish-smell is to be expected, of course. The market is outdoors, brightly colored stalls sprouting from the seaside promenade, and probably a third of them are selling some sort of seafood: freshly caught salmon and cod stretched out on ice, shrimp and crab and lobster awaiting their demise in well-used coolers, even a scattering of filter-feeders, though the sea hasn't really agreed with oysters for years now. And the stranger things too, the ones that Lave is here for, slow-moving catfish grown thick with crystals from decades spent feeding on the effluvium of distant false-islands, clockwork parasites clogging the soft innards of shellfish, even a smattering of relics laboriously dredged up from the dreams of sunken ruins.

It's not that Lave needs any of them, not really. She's planning to go home with whichever fish catches her eye, a gift for her dolls, but mostly she's here to browse and enjoy the morning. She's entirely in the moment, luxuriating in the way her sundress feels against her skin, even pretending to need to use her hand to keep her wide-brimmed sunhat from blowing away. It's the little things, you know? Even though the entire crowd probably knows what she is. The veil isn't a give-away—lots of people wear veils—but her skin glows with the light of a barely concealed sunrise, full of cloudy reds and vibrant purples. Her well-tanned skin soaks up most of it, but it's still there. Still obvious to anyone who knows what it means.

Which, as someone bumps into her, obviously isn't the entire crowd. He doesn't even bother to apologize.

Which, okay, is a bit rude. Even baseline humans deserve a bit of respect. For a moment the sky dims, a cloud passing across the cloudless sky, but just for a moment. Lave isn't going to let this ruin her mood; she's better than that.

Instead she drifts out of the crowd and buys a tiny cup of espresso from the selkie running one of the non-fish stalls. It's still morning, after all, still early enough to enjoy the rich smell wafting off it, still early enough that the caffeine wouldn't ruin her sleep if she ever actually did sleep. Besides, she's seen the selkie, whose name she hasn't bothered to remember (though you, dear reader, should know that it's Ginger, if only for the sake of clarity), at least a dozen times before; enough familiarity to spark a brief chat while she pulls a shot off the machine, gentle platitudes about how they're both feeling and how lovely the day has been, and, oh, have you see the catch over at the Seafoam Company's stall? All the way in the market's heart? Lave hasn't, and Ginger hasn't seen it properly either, but she saw it being hoisted off a boat before the crowds arrived, while she was setting up her own stall, and it looked quite impressive! Really the centerpiece of the market, if only for today, and, oh, Lave's cup is ready and she hopes she'll enjoy it, and—but whatever else Ginger might have wanted to say is lost in a brief goodbye. There's another customer waiting.

And so Lave is meandering into the market's heart, cautiously sipping her cup, when the attempt on her life begins. It's sort of comical, honestly, at least at first. The idea that someone might try to kill her hasn't crossed her mind in decades, and she's been quite sure that she's unkillable for the last century of her increasingly protracted existence. Things like her do not simply die.

Nevertheless, the first shot takes her head off and completely ruins the remaining half of her drink. The bullet arrives a full five seconds before the gunshot's sound, its passage tearing the air around it and shattering quite a few unfortunate windows, and (as Lave will discover, afterward) continues on from her to mortally wound an unfortunately positioned bystander, release a cooler of lobsters into the wild, and plow a deep furrow into the promenade's concrete. It's a big, armor-piercing bullet, the sort of thing you use when you're up against a tank or one of HER children, and simultaneously absolute overkill for the form Lave is wearing and nowhere near enough to do any sort of lasting damage.

She's so startled and taken aback that she just stands there for a few seconds, not even bothering to repair her body. One hand inanely pats at the empty air where her sunhat should be. The sky holds its breath.

In that long, long moment, as the crowd starts to panic, another three bullets reach her. One of them blows a hole through her torso and sends her body twirling around, spewing her not-blood in a great arc around her; the second misses, embedding itself harmlessly into the ground; and the third pauses about two feet away from her, its skin unfolding and releasing its true payload. Also, several people in the crowd throw bombs at her before turning to flee.

It's a pretty comprehensive attack, really, the sort of thing that works like a charm on small-witches. Overwhelm the body, inflict as much damage as possible, introduce novel contagions to frustrate their magic or complicate escape (the bullet's payload contains three purpose-grown demons, meant to anchor Lave to the Real, corrode her abstract weapons, and frustrate traditional magic), and keep them disoriented and unsure of where the next attack will come from or what it will entail.

It is insufficient.

Lave sheds her outermost form, letting damage slough off her in a way not dissimilar to a dog shaking off the rain. She's larger now, with more limbs than before, and her body creaks like a collapsing glacier as she stretches, gemstone eyes sprouting wider and wider, engulfing her face until nothing is left above her frown. Target acquisition: she reaches out with two hands and crushes the distant sniper's hiding place, a white-stone tower nearly a mile inland. More hands pluck bomb-throwers from the crowd, tasting the traces of destruction on their hands. Lave is curious, for now, inclined to wonder about who her enemies are, but that begins to change as the tower explodes in her hands, shredding ablative layers of skin with toxin-coated shrapnel and shedding radioactive salt into her blood. It tastes like the sea, like false-island shit and the lingering byproducts of ancient catastrophes. Something stirs in the air around her for the seconds it takes for her immune system to flush those contaminants out of her, a tsunami thundering inland to claim what it only now recalls has always belonged to it. Sunlight bleeds through her skin.


She's quite sure that she has everything she'll need to pluck whichever foe has decided to strike at her, whether new or old; Lave is nothing if not self-centered and arrogant, as witches so often are. Her awareness begins to drift, less localized to her body than before, and she idly eats one of the bomb-throwers, then another, teasing out the tastes of their souls.

Probably they wanted that to be a mistake, as their essences pop like rancid eggs and unleash a torrent of living poisons into her gullet, but her stomach has dealt with worse things than that and the horrors they filled themselves with die screaming in bursts of cleansing plasma. Rather a waste of effort, really, and Lave can't learn anything from atomized sludge. She yawns, stretches, shrugs off a drizzle of low-caliber bullets and crushes the building they were coming from, one of the rather too expensive podium buildings sitting just inland from the promenade. It explodes in the exact same way as the distant tower did, contaminating her with the exact same contaminants. Lave considers this indicative of either a lack of imagination or a lack of resources; either way it's mildly disappointing, and doesn't speak well to the prospects of whoever masterminded the attack. Probably they're trying their best, but is that really all they've got?

Her awareness is increasingly delocalized, drifting through a cascade of phantom hands as she combs through the city in search of unknown foes, and Lave almost doesn't notice the doll plodding towards her across the (empty, devastated) promenade. The doll (who, dear reader, is called Rosemary, though it has other titles) isn't a particularly notable thing, anyway; it's the sort of doll that skates beneath the awareness of proper witches, mildly embarrassing to look at. It's obviously someone's first effort, lumpy and ill-formed, with a body that doesn't quite fit together despite the obvious effort put into dressing it properly. It's half the height of a person and barely a fourth of Lave's current height, and, for reasons which seem as mysterious to it as they do to Lave, it's carrying a slightly oversized falchion.

The portion of Lave's awareness that's still in her body crouches down and coos at it, voice full of the sort of condescension one reserves for small animals and small children who've just done something very unwise.

"Oh no, are you okay? Did you lose your witch in the chaos? Come here and we'll find them together ..." Lave tilts her head in confusion as the doll struggles to lift its falchion; condescension pools in her voice, almost thick enough to cut. "Put that down, dear, you'll hurt yourself."

It pauses, and stares at Lave with eyes that she's sure have no place on its body. "No."

"Oh, are you confused? Are you trying to protect your witch? Dear, you must understand, this isn't your fight. I'll keep both of you safe."

Rosemary seems to have an easier time raising its falchion the rest of the way, using both its little hands to hold it between it and Lave.

"Don't have a witch. Killed 'em."

"... excuse m—?"

Lave's incredulous reply is violently cut off; Rosemary's falchion twitches, rotating along an angle that had somehow evaded Lave's sight. To an onlooker it would like like the sword had shimmered for a moment before spitting out another massive bullet with a noise like the crack of lightning, the impact shattering one of Lave's overgrown eyes before slipping across her armored skull, not quite able to penetrate but tearing a bloody path through her scalp. To Lave, it was more like a leviathan had surfaced from beneath the ocean and slapped her in the face, a vast being of dark metal and grafted weapons—the end of days, the end of thought, turning in its path to stare her squarely in the eye—a genuine threat, wielded by the most pathetic thing she could imagine.

Obviously not a state of affairs she could allow to continue.

Still, the pest is persistent, she has to give it that much; strangely fast on its feet, somehow always outside her grasp, harrying her with a cascade of strikes—none worse than a sting, none enough to break her, but gradually adding up as the devastation around them mounts and the morning sky darkens. A single hit would shatter the doll, but she can never quite get close enough, not without exposing herself to that thing it uses with such uncomprehending elegance, the merest fraction of its capabilities sufficient to ward her off as long as she inhabits her present form.

An obvious solution presents itself: Lave escalates.

She has her own weapon too, a greatsword: a single shining spike, so large that she has to shed her form again to reveal the thing waiting behind it, adorned with glorious wings and eyes like blazing stars. Long ago she fashioned it from the corpse of another Power, flensing away every part of it which she could not chain to her will. She destroyed part of the lexicon of existence to create it: rendered reality such that the concept it had bound itself to would never exist again save with her touch upon it. Do you remember the last time you saw a fallen star?

It's right beside her, just as it always is. All she has to do to awaken it is skewer the sun and pluck it from the sky—a mass of blazing light where a lesser weapon's crossguard would be, burning too bright to look at, too hot to touch. Rosemary does its best to interrupt the process, striking against her again and again, damaging her body until she has to shed it and reveal yet another form waiting behind, inhuman, angelic—but the doll was only ever a nuisance.

A pest intoxicated by the strength of its own sting.

So Lave takes it away from it.

It's not hard. Touching it hurts, a bit, but Lave uses her sword for most of it, and once the falchion is out of Rosemary's hands it's just an inert piece of metal, perfectly camouflaging the abomination lurking inside it. From there the doll tries its best, but it's hopelessly outmatched and just plain hopeless: the poor thing didn't really understand what it was getting into.

How could it? It was only a doll.