The waves crashed against the jagged cliffs looming over the shore, and dusk crept towards night. Mani’s chariot wasn’t in the sky yet, but the waning daylight lit the rocky Asgardian shore well enough for the thieves to see what Loki was pulling from his bag.
“Put these on,” Loki commanded.
Loki handed Nikolas and Thraka their new hoods.
Even in the dim light, Nikolas could tell the hood thrown over his shoulders and pulled over his head resembled a botched stitching nightmare—nothing like the sleek sable hoods Loki and Nott were wearing. The boys’ hoods were a patchwork of strange materials and skins, with misfit objects stitched into them—rocks, feathers, hair, flowers, fur, tails, grasses, bones, and bulging pockets sewn shut with unknown contents.
“Are they…new?” Nikolas asked.
“Yes,” Loki said ceremoniously. “They were made specifically for each of you.”
Once the boys’ hoods were situated, they clasped the hoods underneath their chins with a silver, snarling coyote head. Loki and Nott bore the same clasp—as did the entire House of Thieves.
Nikolas and Thraka had learned about the thieves’ hoods following their arrival in Asgard. Each hood had been handsewn by Nott. Somehow, she could weave a garment that would keep its owner completely undetected
This was enough power, clearly, but Nikolas found himself more intrigued with the hoods’ other abilities: they could create wings, change colors, protect the thief against fire, fade into whatever environment surrounded the thief, keep the thief warm in freezing conditions, or even stop a blade by morphing into dragon’s scales. That all came with time, he learned—as the thief and his or her hood became familiar with one another.
“They only hide us as well as we perform a heist?” Thraka asked, still puzzled.
“In a way,” Loki affirmed. “If you get sloppy or uncaring, the hood will be the first to disclose you. It is loyal to the House.”
“I didn’t know there were sides,” Nikolas grumbled, intending Nott to hear.
“It will keep you alive…hidden…honest,” Nott hissed. This was the second time Nikolas had heard her speak. It was unmistakably eerie.
Just then, where the forest’s tree line descended and met the boulders of the shore, a group of beings dashed from the trees.
“Ah. The House is here,” Loki grinned. “Let’s move into Nott’s cave.”
“Does she only have the one?” Nikolas preferred directing his question to Loki even though Nott was walking with them.
Loki shook his head. “She’s one of the oldest members of our pantheon, Nikolas. I’m sure she has more than I’ll ever know about. The House meets here often. Fewer eyes and ears to worry about.”
They walked into the cave, and Nikolas heard Nott whisper. Flames leapt to life along the corridor walls leading farther back and in.
Nikolas could see the relation between his hood and Nott’s keep immediately. Every where he looked, there were white bones being used for a variety of reasons: tools, furniture, weapons, or to hold objects against the wall. There were also intricate, thicker-than-usual cobwebs stretching almost completely above them across the ceiling, holding dead birds and partially decaying animals. Three fire pits with cauldrons began boiling while Nott walked about the cave whispering inaudible incantations. In one corner, Nikolas saw numerous bridles and a few saddles. She rides?
The House arrived quickly and moved about the cave as if they had been there countless times. Their mood was jovial—not at all like the previous time Nikolas had seen them together, just before the Ever Tree heist. The tension between them, then, was knife-edge deadly. Now, there was laughter. Nikolas and Thraka exchanged glances and shrugged.
“You have your hoods!”
Coyote’s teeth were in their canine form—long and menacing—but his face was in his human form. He clasped both Nikolas and Thraka on the shoulders and stared, wide-eyed, into their faces.
“I remember the night Nott and I devised their creation. It was only the two of us then—the House wasn’t formed yet. The hoods have improved through time, as you can imagine. Believe me, boys: this is perhaps the most important garment you will ever own!” Coyote shook his finger at them and then laughed again. “Gather, my happy thieves!”
The House moved into a circle, and Prometheus blazed another torch into existence, illuminating all of their faces more clearly. Nikolas moved to the ground directly in front of Coyote and pulled Thraka down next to him.
“The wolf runs wild, and the Demons howl,” Coyote snarled, and the House mumbled in agreement. “With Asgard’s recent victory and Hati’s escape, tensions are high among the pantheons. They’ll be at each other’s throats before soon, as you are all well aware. I have delivered the bounty from the Ever Tree heist, and we have been given safe passage to collect. Naturally, our identities will remain unknown to our patron, as was agreed. We will go in shifts to collect our portions. I will decide on this soon.”
Nikolas recalled the patron: a queen from Pantheon Tian. But more than that, he couldn’t say.
“And now,” Coyote yelled, “we set into action the plan we made previous to our induction of our two new thieves!”
The House stomped their approval. Nikolas sat cross-legged on the dirt in front of the others, galvanized.
Freki had been right: everything was changing. It had been one day since Nikolas had slit his hand and dashed from an ash tree in Myra only to emerge from another in Asgard. It had only been two days since he had watched his best friend die under the branches of the Ever Tree…. Only two days since Nikolas had miraculously brought him back to life. And it had only been a few days since he had joined the ranks with the rest of those in the cave: the legendary House of Thieves.
He glanced at Thraka. The blacksmith hung on the Amerrique All-Father’s words.
“Our positioning…the timing…the addition of two new thieves…everything is set. Yes, in a matter of days, we begin our selective collecting from the pantheons.”
Coyote’s crazy eyes found Nikolas and Thraka while the House pounded the floor with their feet. Nikolas saw Thraka squirm. Thraka had been recruited before Nikolas to join the House. Luckily, Thraka’s untimely failure to complete the heist under the Ever Tree hadn’t elicited too severe a reprimand from the god-thieves. And whether it was luck or fate, Nikolas had been close enough to make sure the heist succeeded.
“You think the Demon Hunt is as close as your seers predict?” Seti, the long-nosed Alkebulan, drained his goblet.
“I do,” Coyote confirmed. “Your pantheon’s seers will confirm it, too: the pantheon order is on the verge of extinction. The gates of Tartarus will break and Demons will flood this world. Our survival will require the Seven Relics. But where are my manners? Let’s review each object for our new thieves. Loki?”
Nikolas’ mentor spoke with clarity and precision.
“Nott and I will be the Alpha Thieves leading the collection of Freya’s necklace, Brisingamen. She keeps it in her citadel in the Underworld, guarded by her army, the Beautiful Dead. The necklace gives her complete control over them.”
Coyote nodded. “Simon?”
Simon shifted his weight, and the multitude of key rings around his waist clicked together.
“The Ring of Seals is worn by Eden’s All-Mother, Eve. The ring was made and used after the Plundering—when the Demons were imprisoned in the farthest reaches of Tartarus. Though all pantheons were instrumental in the imprisonment of the Demons, it was Eve’s ring that sealed the Demons in. Hati’s escape means there is a crack not just in the gates, but in the power containing the Demons—in the ring. For my own purposes, I hope to mend that. Unfortunately, she won’t trust the ring to me, now—hence, our need to take it without consent. And I should add: the ring creates an influence over the Demons’ language, although to what extent, Eve has never made known.”
“If I could wear it, I could ensure the safety of all,” Eris grumbled. Nikolas had heard her speak of Demons multiple times now, though this last made him wonder.
“It won’t serve an Olympian nearly as much as an Edenite,” the tall and fair Magdalene said. “The object’s potency lies within those aligned with its pantheon—you know that, Eris.”
“At the point we have the ring in our possession, the Demon Hunt may well have begun.” Coyote’s tone, for the first time Nikolas could recall, was grave. “Eris, would you speak of the Aegis?”
“I refuse to say her name aloud. Ask Prometheus,” she drawled.
The House turned to the silent Titan. He shook his head and the torch flickered.
“Hermes,” Coyote implored.
The curly-haired Olympian smiled, “Of course, of course. Zeus’ serpent skin shield, the Aegis, has only been held by two other Olympians: Athena and Apollo. Athena is the caretaker of it now, which makes taking it from under her owl-eyed visor a slight challenge.”
Nikolas recalled the night Eris sparred with Athena in the streets. It would take at least three to best Athena.
“Coyote and I—.” She was interrupted by Coyote.
“I won’t be assisting in the scouting mission. The risk of discovery is too much for an All-Father. But please continue.”
Raven, visibly surprised, continued.
“There is a flute hidden within our pantheon whose sound can unite or destroy a people. The Elk Folk’s flute has the power to amplify love or war in the heart of the hearer. We haven’t heard the flute in a very long time, and the Elk Folk are rumored to be leaving the pantheon—making their way north.”
“The flute’s power is potent. How else would I have convinced Silver Fox to be my First Wife?” he laughed. “Which pantheons haven’t we covered?”
“Alkebulan, Tian, and Sumeru,” Thraka interjected immediately. Nikolas rolled his eyes.
“Thank you, blacksmith,” Coyote nodded. “Seti?”
“I’ll be only too glad to take Isis’ harpoon,” Seti slammed his goblet on a table. “I’ve been at the opposite end of it too many times.”
“Isis—she’s the All-Mother for Pantheon Alkebulan?” Thraka asked.
Seti smiled at Thraka. “Yes, little thief. Her harpoon’s scarab blade can pierce anything whispered to it by its bearer, be it flesh or stone. It will paralyze any being while leaving them fully conscious. It can also be used to channel power from the Sun Bearers.”
“I remember well our collective discouragement when we discovered she had last trapped you,” the Tian god recalled.
“One of the few times we were at a loss of how to assist your escape,” Coyote agreed. “Moving on. Tell the boys about the Monkey King’s boots, Futushi.”
Without a pause, the Tian god continued.
“The Monkey King’s cloud-stepping boots allow him to run on the air. He wears them regularly, so acquiring them will take ultimate stealth.”
Nikolas had seen multitudes of gods and immortals rise in the air during the Pantheon Trials, but he couldn’t help but wonder what it would be like to step on clouds.
“Pardon me,” Thraka asked, “but what makes the boots any more significant than our hoods? I saw many gods fly, some with their hoods, during the Trials. Are the boots better than cloak-wings?”
“Let me see if I can make it more clear,” Futushi said. “Our thief hoods have the potential to create wings for each of us, even though some of us, like Barachiel there, are born with wings. Learning to create and then operate your wings from your hoods will take some serious study. But the boots’ abilities start immediately.”
Nikolas curled and flexed his toes. I’ve got to wear those boots.
“And last but not least, our very own ‘monkey king,’” Coyote gestured to Hanuman.
“The Bow. The Bow. The Great Bow, Gandiva.” Hanuman laughed. “The Great Bow is special in all creation. Gandiva’s many strings shine as bright as the moon! And not only is the bow magnificent and unbreakable, but its two quivers never empty, the arrows forming to the needs of its bearer.”
Artemis appeared in Nikolas’ thoughts. Zeus had broken her bow when she refused to slay the hind at the Pantheon Trials. Nikolas would never forget that scene: the look on her face the second Zeus broke her bow in half.
“That’s it boys,” Coyote grinned. “Do you think you’ll be able to remember?”
“I won’t forget,” Thraka confirmed. “I promise.”
Nikolas nodded. And it might be a first, Thraka, but neither will I. Never.
“Good,” Coyote said. “We strike for Brisingamen and the cloud-stepping boots, first. Loki, Nott and Futushi: scout them out. We’ll reassemble after each scouting mission is completed to prepare for the heists. But now, back to your pantheons, my dear thieves.”
Discussions ended quickly with the sharp, whisking sound of the thieves’ hoods being raised. Nikolas watched the House leave the cave, all except for Loki, who was waiting for him. Purpose filled the air.
“Are you ready, Nikolas? For all of this?” Loki asked the question as if he already knew the answer.
Nikolas had dreamt of the House of Thieves for as long as he could remember. Now, he was one of them and he had the coyote clasp and coyote pick to prove it.
He followed Loki to the entrance of the cave and pulled up his hood, the thundering waves getting louder with each step. Mani’s chariot raced through the night sky.
“Well,” Nikolas smirked, “I’ve always wondered what it would be like to command an army of the dead and run on the wind. So, let’s find out!”