“A signal flare?” Horangi bared her teeth in exasperation.
“Aye.” Thor nodded. “As you said, Horangi, it was up to me to get off my mountain and act. That is what I have done.”
“I meant something more along the lines of frying Nihilator’s army!”
“We’ve lost power,” Loki warned from the helm. “We still have life support, but the engines are finished. The fleet will catch us in short order, and attempt to claim the crown.”
Thor glanced around the deck. Skarra knelt over Zia, who was slowly regaining consciousness. Overcome with grief, Nott cradled Dagr’s head in her lap. Her tears turned to ice crystals as they fell. Much of the Orlando’s crew were dead or downed, including the helmsman Kvo, who lay unmoving at Loki’s feet. The ship itself was not only slowing—it was dying, if such a thing were possible. Blackened, mold-colored tendrils continued to spread across the hull and bow, infecting everything they touched.
“Be careful,” Thor cautioned, motioning at the spreading corruption, “lest that foul substance infects us the same as it has those other poor souls.”
“That’s the least of our problems,” Horangi growled, pointing at the regrouped armada that was once again gaining on them.
“Perhaps,” Thor agreed. “Truly, we are still outnumbered and outgunned. There was a group on Midgard fashioned after the Hydra of old. They boasted that if you cut down one of their number, two more would take his place. The same could be said of our opponents. No matter how many of these black metal foes we best, the horde keeps coming. Loath as I am to admit it, we need reinforcements. Thus . . . my signal flare.”
Powerless, its stabilizers belching smoke, the Orlando began to list to one side.
Skarra scowled. “We’ll be dead before help arrives.”
Thor smiled. “If so, then I have indeed called upon the correct allies.”
Loki’s brow furrowed. “Who did you summon, brother?”
Turning, Thor pointed with Mjolnir. “Those who are sworn to protect the realm . . . and if necessary, to deliver our souls to Valhalla when this day is through.”
A pinprick of light appeared amidst the black void, barely noticeable at first, given the totality of the nebula’s presence. As they watched, the light grew brighter and wider, flaring like a star. Four flaring beams shot out from its side, seeming to flay the darkness with their brilliance.
Horangi squinted. “What is that?”
Before Thor could answer, Nihilator’s forces renewed their attack. The grotesque fleet surrounded Zia’s ship with astonishing speed, dwarfing the craft with their disgusting mass. Once again, magnetic grapnels slammed into the hull from all sides, while simultaneously a pus-colored tractor beam rendered the Orlando immobile. The black tendrils continued their advance along the hull and the deck, infecting everything in their path. Zia’s remaining crew members scrambled backward, huddling alongside their captain.
Nott raised her head and brushed ice crystals from her cheeks and the corner of her eyes. Slowly, she lay her son’s head on the deck. Then she rose, stoic in her rage.
“Steady.” Thor planted his feet as the ship listed further.
The Orlando's sustaining atmosphere crackled as it was breached. The horde swarmed the vessel, and their triumphant refrain seemed to overwhelm everything.
“NIHILATOR! NIHILATOR! NIHILATOR!”
They surrounded the remaining crew, leering and taunting, weapons at the ready.
Thor gripped Mjolnir and tensed. Nott bared her teeth. Horangi shape-shifted, roaring defiantly. Zia shook their head and clambered upright, veering unsteadily.
“Steady, Captain,” Skarra cautioned.
“What’s happening?” Zia asked.
“I think we’re about to die.”
Zia glared sullenly at the overwhelming masses. “Then I’ll need my sword.”
“Come on,” Thor challenged. “Come and learn what it means to face the son of Odin!”
Instead of charging, the horde fell quiet.
Grinning, Thor glanced back at the others. “Obviously, my reputation precedes me.”
The black metal army parted as one, making way for a figure in their midst. He was tall and unkempt and, like his troops, he reeked of corruption. His black clothing hung from his emaciated frame. His long, unwashed hair seemed to cling to his shoulders and scalp like tar. He carried a guitar that had been fashioned into a battle-axe.
It took Thor a moment to recognize the figure. The last time he’d seen him, just days ago at the concert,...