At first, all Thor could see was the darkness.
It swelled from amongst the stars, a velvet expanse of nothing. The black hole had grown in the years since Thor’s last—and only—visit: what had once appeared a simple sphere now seemed almost to surge and pulse as the Orlando navigated carefully closer, straining at the edges of gravity’s precarious containment. Miskandar’s once-stable orbit seemed to have decayed as well; now it quivered at the edge of the dead star’s event horizon like a hapless hiker dangling by fingertips above a plunging gulch.
They had been limping toward the dead star for the better part of two days, ever since a crewman had noticed the missing skiff. Skarra was gone, too, and with her, the crown. There was little question as to where she would be headed.
The question of whether the Orlando should follow had been less easily resolved. Even with Thor’s lightning to jump-start her engines, the ship was crippled, her navigation compromised and weapons all but destroyed. Most of her crew had survived the battle with Nihilator’s forces, but few had emerged intact; and those still able to man their posts were spread thin as they struggled to keep the foundering Orlando on course.
Thor had assumed pursuit to be a foregone conclusion, and he had been shocked and dismayed when Zia had initially refused. While the Orlando and her crew were no strangers to peril, Zia had taken these particular losses hard, particularly Nott. The ship herself was in dire need of repair. Even if she could be coaxed to Miskandar, there was no guarantee that she would make it back. In the end, it had taken Thor, Loki, and Horangi together to convince Zia to compromise: a brief stop at a nearby outpost, where the Orlando’s injured crew members could be sent to safety, and the ship herself patched up enough to survive the subsequent voyage. The gods weren’t happy about the detour, but on that point, Zia would bend for neither logic nor passion; so they had little choice but to concede.
In any case, Zia pointed out, they could afford the delay. The skiff Skarra had taken was a short-range vessel, whose engines could cycle for only limited periods. Damaged as she was, the Orlando would be able to overtake it with relative ease. Furthermore, it was equipped with a tracking beacon: even if they were unable to stop Skarra en route, Zia was confident that they could follow the skiff to the planet’s surface and intercept her there.
For all that he had argued in its favor, Thor had his own concerns about returning to Miskandar. Indeed, ever since the armory, doubt had been a nigh-constant companion, dogging his heels and rising with every choice and crossroads. He confided none of this in his comrades. Had he tried, he was unsure he could even have articulated the nebulous fears that swarmed through his mind. Instead, he had retreated to the observatory where, accompanied only by his own disquietude, he sat and watched the darkness with rising dread.
Twisted monoliths jutted out of Miskandar’s fractured landscape like fingers stretching for the sky, as if something were clawing its way out from beneath the ruined avenues. The air thickened and roiled around them as they approached the surface. The skiff’s lights cut eerie beams through swirling miasma that seemed almost alive.
There was a noise, too: a muttering, discordant hum that clawed persistently at the edges of Thor’s attention. At first, he thought it was the skiff’s engine, but it grew louder the lower they sank, and he realized that it must be emanating from the planet itself.
No one spoke. Zia was at the helm, shoulders tense, knuckles white on the controls as they rode out the shockwaves of the storm and hunted for a safe landing site amid the wreckage. Next to Thor, Horangi sat tense as a coiled spring, flexing and retracting her claws. Finally, she broke the silence with the question that had been weighing on all of their minds: “What do we do when we find her?”
“I don’t know.” Zia’s voice was flat, and their eyes never left the controls. “We have to find her first.”
“And the crown,” Loki pointed out. Of their company, only he seemed relatively undisturbed, though Thor suspected his comparative nonchalance might have had less to do with indifference and more with the fact that Loki had unquestionably already devised a way out, or some kind of back-up plan. He had told Thor as much back on the Orlando; and for all that the last few days had clearly rattled Loki, Thor knew that his brother’s instinct for self-preservation ran far deeper than friendship or even blood.
If he were to make a play for the crown—Thor shuddered at the thought of Nihilator’s legion, hollowed out from within by the crown’s...