The Hidden Oracle chapter 24

Breaking my promise

Spectacularly failing

I blame Neil Diamond

 

MYRMEKES SHOULD BE high on your list of monsters not to fight.

 

They attack in groups. They spit acid. Their pincers can snap through Celestial bronze. Also, they are ugly.

 

The three soldier ants advanced, their ten-foot-long antennae waving and bobbing in a mesmerizing way, trying to distract me from the true danger of their mandibles.

 

Their beaked heads reminded me of chickens—chickens with dark flat eyes and black armored faces. Each of their six legs would have made a fine construction winch. Their oversize abdomens throbbed and pulsed like noses sniffing for food.

 

I silently cursed Zeus for inventing ants. The way I heard it, he got upset with some greedy man who was always stealing from his neighbors’ crops, so Zeus turned him into the first ant—a species that does nothing but scavenge, steal, and breed. Ares liked to joke that if Zeus wanted such a species, he could’ve just left humans the way they were. I used to laugh. Now that I am one of you, I no longer find it funny.

 

The ants stepped toward us, their antennae twitching. I imagined their train of thought was something like Shiny? Tasty? Defenseless?

 

“No sudden movements,” I told Meg, who did not seem inclined to move at all. In fact, she looked petrified.

 

“Oh, Pete?” I called. “How do you deal with myrmekes invading your territory?” “By hiding,” he said, and disappeared into the geyser.

 

“Not helpful,” I grumbled. “Can we dive in?” Meg asked.

 

“Only if you fancy boiling to death in a pit of scalding water.” The tank bugs clacked their mandibles and edged closer.

“I have an idea.” I unslung my ukulele.

“I thought you swore not to play,” Meg said.

“I did. But if I throw this shiny object to one side, the ants might—” I was about to say the ants might follow it and leave us alone.

 

I neglected to consider that, in my hands, the ukulele made me look shinier and tastier. Before I could throw the instrument, the soldier ants surged toward us. I stumbled back, only remembering the geyser behind me when my shoulder blades began to blister, filling the air with Apollo-scented steam.

 

“Hey, bugs!” Meg’s scimitars flashed in her hands, making her the new shiniest thing in the clearing. Can we take a moment to appreciate that Meg did this on purpose? Terrified of insects, she could

 

have fled and left me to be devoured. Instead, she chose to risk her life by distracting three tank-size ants. Throwing garbage at street thugs was one thing. But this…this was an entirely new level of foolishness. If I lived, I might have to nominate Meg McCaffrey for Best Sacrifice at the next Demi Awards.

 

Two of the ants charged at Meg. The third stayed on me, though he turned his head long enough for me to sprint to one side.

 

Meg ran between her opponents, her golden blades severing a leg from each. Their mandibles snapped at empty air. The soldier bugs wobbled on their five remaining legs, tried to turn, and bonked heads.

 

Meanwhile, the third ant charged me. In a panic, I threw my combat ukulele. It bounced off the ant’s forehead with a dissonant twang.

 

I tugged my sword free of its scabbard. I’ve always hated swords. Such inelegant weapons, and they require you to be in close combat. How unwise, when you can shoot your enemies with an arrow from across the world!

The ant spit acid, and I tried to swat away the goop.

 

Perhaps that wasn’t the brightest idea. I often got sword fighting and tennis confused. At least some of the acid splattered the ant’s eyes, which bought me a few seconds. I valiantly retreated, raising my sword only to find that the blade had been eaten away, leaving me nothing but a steaming hilt.

 

“Oh, Meg?” I called helplessly.

She was otherwise occupied. Her swords whirled in golden arcs of destruction, lopping off leg segments, slicing antennae. I had never seen a dimachaerus fight with such skill, and I had seen all the best gladiators in combat. Unfortunately, her blades only sparked off the ants’ thick main carapaces. Glancing blows and dismemberment did not faze them at all. As good as Meg was, the ants had more legs, more weight, more ferocity, and slightly more acid-spitting ability.

 

My own opponent snapped at me. I managed to avoid its mandibles, but its armored face bashed the side of my head. I staggered and fell. One ear canal seemed to fill with molten iron.

My vision clouded. Across the clearing, the other ants flanked Meg, using their acid to herd her toward the woods. She dove behind a tree and came up with only one of her blades. She tried to stab the closest ant but was driven back by acid cross fire. Her leggings were smoking, peppered with holes. Her face was tight with pain.

“Peaches,” I muttered to myself. “Where is that stupid diaper demon when we need him?”

 

The karpos did not appear. Perhaps the presence of the geyser gods or some other force in the woods kept him away. Perhaps the board of directors had a rule against pets.

 

The third ant loomed over me, its mandibles foaming with green saliva. Its breath smelled worse than Hephaestus’s work shirts.

 

My next decision I could blame on my head injury. I could tell you I wasn’t thinking clearly, but that isn’t true. I was desperate. I was terrified. I wanted to help Meg. Mostly I wanted to save myself. I saw no other option, so I dove for my ukulele.

 

I know. I promised on the River Styx not to play music until I was a god once more. But even such a dire oath can seem unimportant when a giant ant is about to melt your face off.

I grabbed the instrument, rolled onto my back, and belted out “Sweet Caroline.”

Even without my oath, I would only have done something like that in the most extreme emergency. When I sing that song, the chances of mutually assured destruction are too great. But I saw no other choice. I gave it my utmost effort, channeling all the saccharine schmaltz I could muster from the 1970s.

 

The giant ant shook its head. Its antennae quivered. I got to my feet as the monster crawled drunkenly toward me. I put my back to the geyser and launched into the chorus.

 

The Dah! Dah! Dah! did the trick. Blinded by disgust and rage, the ant charged. I rolled aside as the monster’s momentum carried it forward, straight into the muddy cauldron.

 

Believe me, the only thing that smells worse than Hephaestus’s work shirts is a myrmeke boiling in its own shell.

 

Somewhere behind me, Meg screamed. I turned in time to see her second sword fly from her hand. She collapsed as one of the myrmekes caught her in its mandibles.

“NO!” I shrieked.

The ant did not snap her in half. It simply held her—limp and unconscious. “Meg!” I yelled again. I strummed the ukulele desperately. “Sweet Caroline!”

 

But my voice was gone. Defeating one ant had taken all my energy. (I don’t think I have ever written a sadder sentence than that.) I tried to run to Meg’s aid, but I stumbled and fell. The world turned pale yellow. I hunched on all fours and vomited.

 

I have a concussion, I thought, but I had no idea what to do about it. It seemed like ages since I had been a god of healing.

 

I may have lay in the mud for minutes or hours while my brain slowly gyrated inside my skull. By the time I managed to stand, the two ants were gone.

There was no sign of Meg McCaffrey.

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