A roar rose as the Wasteland’s furious audience rushed the stage, intent on rending Thor and Horangi into shreds.
Thor enjoyed the prospect of a brawl, even against such overwhelming odds, but he had no desire to harm the victims of the crown’s lingering influence. Lives were already in danger; he needed to recover the stolen crown from that teleporting thief before it wreaked more havoc. But first, he and Horangi needed to handle the immediate crisis. The wizened old man called Nihilator was exhorting the K-pop singers to continue the performance, to whip up the crowd into a further frenzy.
The last Thor remembered of the crown, before it turned up here, was that it had lain in his treasure room back on Asgard. If something had tainted it, the responsibility was his to stop its further misuse. Especially if his scapegrace brother was involved. This mischief had Loki’s stench all over it. After all, who else would—or could—have pilfered his belongings?
The concert had degenerated into pandemonium. The hovering drone-cams whirled around like disoriented bees, seeking good angles from which to record the spectacle. Four of the Korean singers were gamely trying to adapt their choreography to their new circumstances, while the fifth and shortest was backing away from a crab-like Kragnan who had rushed the stage. Thor swung Mjolnir straight through the creature’s carapace, then had to recover his balance—nothing remained of his opponent but a shimmer of sparks and crackling light. The real attacker, an elfin creature wielding a dagger, had hidden itself behind a holographic illusion, and Thor’s hammer strokes made short work of it. The boy singer shouted something that sounded like “Cheonmaneyo” as he scuttled away from the stage’s edge and toward the rest of the band, trailing streaks of glitter.
The howling of the crowd reverberated through the Wasteland of Sound. He glanced back to make sure the rest of the singers were safe. Horangi, still in the form of an immense tiger, was herding the boys upstage. She swiped at attackers with claws the size of daggers, unfazed by the fact that the audience was throwing flasks, flowers, and the occasional perfumed item of clothing in the band’s direction.
Thor’s fist connected with the face of an ululating alien who was determined to out-sing the entire Wasteland. When it went down, ichor spurting from its nose, some of the other would-be attackers hesitated, loath to face him.
We might be able to keep casualties down, after all . . .
Then the first barrage of photon blasts rained down from the sky. It melted the stage, which sizzled in runnels of overheated plasma. The crowd’s screaming intensified. Sensible people scrambled to escape. A few shoved against them in an attempt to video the extravaganza.
Alarmed, Thor smashed his way to the shelter of an overhanging buttress and squinted up, unable to identify the source of the incoming fire. Those shots hadn’t been random. Someone was attempting to get people out of the way in preparation for the real assault.
So now it’s war.
“Horangi,” he bellowed, “change!”
For once she didn’t argue. Red flames dwindled into a sputter of ashen light as she resumed her smaller human shape. Thor tackled Horangi to shield her from the continuing barrage. More photon blasts washed over him, rebounding off his armor but leaving an unpleasant residue of heat.
The attackers weren’t finished. Thor heard the subsonic boom of a star cannon. He grabbed Horangi despite her hidden mass and rolled away from its target: the still-hovering shuttlecraft from which the singers had disembarked. The projectile hit the shuttle’s engine. It exploded in phoenix splendor, flinging white-hot shrapnel in all directions.
“The boys,” Horangi growled, peering out from beneath him. “Are they all right?”
Thor lifted his head to survey the area. “They are unharmed.”
It was more or less true. The boys were tangled in a heap, sporting bruises and rips in their costumes. But other people had been hit by the shrapnel. He could hear their moans, see the fallen bodies. He had to put an end to this before more people were hurt.
People bolted away from the stage, trampling each other in their eagerness to escape, some toward ships and shuttles of their own. The hypnotic effect of the crown must be wearing off—with deadly implications for those who couldn’t get out of the way in time.
As Thor watched, Nihilator, who had miraculously escaped harm, rebuked the singers. One of the boys dragged himself upright, improvising a dance move, and launched shakily into the next verse. The music continued to blast from the Wasteland’s speakers as if nothing out of the ordinary was going on.
Thor was about to shout at the singer to take cover when an enormous shadow fell over the stage. The...