The Theft of the Ocean's Heart
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The Thief erupts from a boil in the air and falls from the sky.

He writhes around, accelerating toward what he knows is not ground, getting his bearings. The breach worked. Arms out, legs apart. Catch the air as it goes past. Face toward what’s dragging him. He sees where he is.

He looks down on an ancient city, built out of and above an infinite ocean. It is a wonderful catastrophe of colonnades, plazas, walls, and courtyards. A lonely island of built things. They rise from the water with no pattern. This was not made to be traversed - not by things like the Thief. It is a symbol. A maze and a keeping-place. All the edifices are elegant gray stone, gold, enamel, and alabaster. Some lean lazily in their foundations, ignorant of architecture’s demand for right angles. Others stand at attention. They shine in the glare of the many suns above, brighter even than the bladed crests of the waves that extend in all directions. From many corners and wells and spouts come waterfalls and geysers, running over and across the city’s thousands of stone faces. The spray from them catches the lights all at once, bejeweling the ramparts in glittering droplets and rivulets.

The Thief sees all this from his rapidly diminishing aerial vantage, and smiles. It appears the Lord of the House is not in attendance. Not yet. There is precious time.

Wind rushes, singing the Thief’s imminent death in his ears. For now, it is correct. The Thief concentrates. This world has a hard grip. A reflection of its master - the rules are inexorable and will wear all to sand.

The Thief, however, is no stone. Something like the opposite. He twists his essence. Find the slipping points and dance across them. Gravity becomes confused. Who is this? What is it doing here? And then it decides the Thief is more trouble than it’s worth, and lets go. He feels the benthic pressure of the world unclench him with a subtle pop. Just in time. He floats snidely to a stone platform, the great facades and edifices and towers rising up all around him like jaws. He touches toe to stone, hovering. Testing the waters. Just in case.

Nothing. Nothing so far.

The Thief nods, and perches. Through his tabi he can feel the stone’s hostility. There it is. It knows he is not from here. And it will alert its lord.

There is time enough.

The Thief runs to the edge of the platform, and twists once more. Flows with the forces, becoming a river of himself. Inspiration from the master of the house. A handspring, a contortion. Barrel roll, illusion turn. Gravity forgets him again. He’s surprised of the amount of work he needs to do. This is a vigilant world. A cascade of eyes, insistently watching. Reporting.

A good challenge.

The Thief’s ballet ends in a backflip and leap. A burst of unctuous shadow puffs from the point of contact, pushing him higher. He rises into the air, eyes on the next platform. He sails toward it like a dream.

The center tower. He can see it from here. High up, several levels. Security must surely tighten as he ascends. He considers his options as he floats, and falls gently to the top of a nearby column. Looks down briefly at the water the column rises from. Bright blue and serene.

The serenity crumples. The water looks directly at the Thief, and sees.

The sky darkens - suns banished by their owner. Furious stormclouds gather, with bellies full of lightning. The gentle and infinite interplay of sunlight, water, and stone is destroyed. Paradise withers.

A voice explodes from somewhere over the horizon.

“INTRUDER! INTERLOPER! CONTEMPTUOUS PROFANITY, THOU STANDETH WITNESSED UPON MY STONES! IGNOBLE LAMPAD, THY FLEA UNDER THE SCALES OF THE LEVIATHAN COSMIC, I WASH THEE AWAY! I CURSE THEE DEPTHWARD AND IN THE DARK SHALL THEE FIND COURTESY! LAMENT! LAMENT! FOR THOU HATH EARNED THE STORM!

The Thief sees a colossal thing in the far distance. It drags a great deluge behind it like a hammer. It approaches.

The King of Waters comes to secure his House.

So. Reach the top of the city in the next handful of moments. Might be hard. The King’s gravity is struggling, searching, grasping. The Thief wobbles.

No time for doubt. Stay swift. Never stop.

Another leap, pushing back against the drag. Sail on, alight on the roof of some house whose occupants fled eons ago. The Thief knows all of these buildings are infested with ancient treasures, things from the King’s great pirate horde. All but one are worthless, and it rests at the highest terrace.

From platform to roof to tower peak the Thief dances. The sky refuses him. It disgorges lightning, bolts of hatred made to destroy. The Thief can feel them just before they strike - they are stupid, and do not know to stay quiet as they approach. They represent their master’s outrage, the thing that is strong enough to ignore subtlety. One rockets down, and the Thief takes a long, smoky step. Three hundred feet this way. One eighth of a mile the next. The Thief carves a jagged path of lingering black smoke through the city, evading his crackling pursuers. He flits through alleyways and over cisterns, through enormous walls of flowing water, through the spouts of fountains and geysers. The Thief is not afraid to get wet.

A rumble grows louder. The waters below begin to rise higher. Swallowing the foundations of the lower levels, boiling up and around them.

The saltstone city creaks and groans all around. The walls begin to clash like great teeth, shutting like doors to keep the Thief out. Great columns topple and fall toward him as he sprints through the cracking courtyards and pavilions. Murals as old as time, depicting the conflux of the first things, splinter under the mad King’s tempest. For just a brief moment, the Thief thinks he sees something, on the wall of one of the temples. Just before the rear floor collapses and the great mosaic falls into the rising ocean. A tiny little figure, barely more than a sprinkle of dark tiles, standing among the titanic others. A diminutive sprite, of smoke and light.

The Thief shakes his head as he flashes onward. No time for old family photos.

The King of Waters is well known for his use of wrath in the place of strategy, and once more he has made a mistake. His great suns would have availed him here. But he darkened them for the storms. Shadow collects in the crumbling passages and archways, under dead bridges and behind jeweled recesses, and the Thief is relieved to the point of tears. He and Shadow were wed an unfathomable time ago. She has come to his aid.

He calls the darknesses about him, and slips between the bars of the world. His jump is silent and perfect. The Thief departs the collapsing causeway and rises, to the highest tower. The many grinding constructions claw and rake at him as he passes, but they are too huge, too solid to stop him. The Thief is even less than water now - their strength is pointless upon him. He lands upon the broken stairs that lead to the sanctum door.

At the Thief’s back, in the distance, there is a wall of water coming, to sweep the ancient city to nothing, and to take him to the bottom of everything. At its heart is the King of Waters, the mighty and unkillable, whose weapons are storm and ice and wave and stone.

The Thief has no weapons. He has never learned how to use any. He is the Thief, not the Warrior.

The small man looks away from the great death bearing down upon him and back to the door. The door quietly refuses him. Its master is here and it is loyal. Its stone face ripples and protests under his touch. Angry lines of lightning spread like cracks across its surface where he touches it. “No,” it says, with a voice of quiet fortitude. Only the King has the key, and the Thief is certainly no king of anything.

But thieves are good at finding keys.

From under his cloak he removes a beaten metal nail. Crude and enormous. A thing made to puncture. Specifically, a thing made by the Iron Prince, who is, despite his reputation, something of a trickster himself. The Prince does not know the Thief has taken one of his sacred nails. But the Thief knows the Prince finds pleasure in poking holes in the Ocean King’s pride - what better to make a hole than a nail?

Shadow, his bride and queen, laughs silently under his cloak.

They join hands and drive the nail into the door together. The door screams and crumbles inward, killed instantly. Few things can resist the Iron Prince’s steel, and most of those are from the Prince’s own anvil. The King of Waters has ever been a talented carver, but he is no engineer.

Past the broken corpse of the door there is only a single cubic chamber. At the center is a saltstone plinth. And churning above the plinth is the prize.

The Omnidiluvion.

He steps toward the roiling thing, and it resists him. It hates him. He understands why. It is a locus for the King’s essence. A fragment of his identity. It is the core of every storm. The howling gyre. The spring. It is the rage, weight, and flow of all things that are seas, from the timeless ocean below the Thief’s feet to the tiniest rivulet of blood wrapped around the brain of a shrew. This is the Fountain of Youth, the Elixir, and the Firmament.

It is about the size of a pumpkin.

The Thief smiles under his hood. The smoke of which he is made billows behind his smoldering teeth. Though it may tantrum and protest, it may wail and writhe, the Omnidiluvion is coming with him.

He has need of it.

His smoke and his wife’s darkness congeal together and form a tide of their own, drenching the primeval vortex and dousing its anger, like a sheet thrown over the cage of a bird. It softens, and sleeps. The Thief tucks it under his cloak, woven from the shadows cast between stars, where it disappears. Safe and sound.

The Thief turns, facing the open doorway. Outside the little chamber there is an apocalypse. This world is ending. The King of Waters cannot muster language. There is only a roar from the throat of the hurricane and a downpour of raging tears. The ocean falls from the sky - its heart has been stolen.

The Thief grins, and disappears.

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