- The Hidden Oracle
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.
I’m on a roll now
Boiling, burning, throwing up