Medusa, serpent-goddess, executioner of men, scourge of Kisthene’s plain, stabbed a clawed finger in my direction. “Tell me the truth, human,” she hissed. “No more lies.”
I straightened my spine and fought the urge to rub my temples in a most unprofessional way.
Why did the gods have to be so dramatic?
Medusa coiled on the examination table in front of me, wearing a light blue open-backed gown. She stared at me, her eyes glowing red as her clawed hands shredded the white sanitary paper.
“I am outcast,” she said in a gravelly voice. Her rattlesnake’s tail swished, nearly taking out my freestanding EKG unit. “I am the damned,” she declared, face twisted with fury. I held on to my clipboard as the examination tent vibrated with her power. “I am the destroyer!”
I nodded. Some patients took longer than others to adjust, but it didn’t change the facts. “You’re also pregnant.”
“Impossible,” she spat, even though we both knew that wasn’t true.
I made a few notes in my chart while she threw her head back and let out a screech that shook the tent.
Ouch. I tried not to wince.
In my professional opinion, screaming often did help.
“Doctor,” she hissed, smoke curling from her nose. For a moment, she was unable to form the question. Her perfectly sculpted brows knit as she brushed a hand through the wild mane of snakes on her head. “How?”
I gave her my most reassuring smile. “The old-fashioned way, I assume.”
She should know. The gorgon was nearly three thousand years old. And from what I’d seen of the ancient Greeks, they certainly knew how to party.
She drew her hands slowly, almost reverently down her green-scaled torso to the perfectly flat stomach under her examination gown. “I’m cursed,” she hissed, “I’m barren. My body is poison!”
“Don’t be so hard on yourself.” Sure, my fingers went a bit numb when I was checking her blood pressure, but all in all she was far less dangerous than the ancient Norse dragon in need of an enema this morning.
That had taken us two doctors, three orderlies, a set of ambulance drivers, and Jeffe the guard sphinx. Although to be frank, all Jeffe did was warn us not to set the motor pool on fire.
I whipped out form 3871-K, which was actually a little slide wheel designed to help me calculate the gorgon pregnancy cycle. “I’d estimate you’re fifty-three days’ along, which is seven weeks and three days’ pregnant. Your gestation time is slightly shorter than the average human, longer than the average goddess.” I slipped the chart back into the pocket of my white coat. “Still, I don’t think we need to see you again until the end of your first trimester.”
I opened a drawer in the medical cart next to the examination table where we kept basics, including samples of prenatal vitamins. “Because you’re over thirty-five years old,” I said, handing her a pack, “we’ll want to do an ultrasound at your next appointment, along with a few other routine tests.”
The pale skin on her neck and arms flushed as she took it all in. She growled low. “My parents are going to kill me.”
Well, I couldn’t offer her any advice on ancient marine deities. Besides, the grin tickling at the sides of her mouth told me more than I needed to know. Once she recovered from the surprise, she’d be tickled pink. Or at least a light green.
“It’s just that”—her gaze wandered as she nibbled on a talon—“I haven’t talked to my mother since I turned her lover to stone.”
“About that,” I said, setting her chart on top of the medical cart. “You’re going to want to try to control your temper. Stress isn’t good for the baby.”
Medusa snarled at me, then caught herself. “I’ll try,” she muttered.
“Do,” I told her.
Ever since the cease-fire in the war of the gods, we’d converted our MASH unit into one of the premier (and only) supernatural clinics in the area. That was saying something, considering we were located in limbo, just north of a major hell vent.
We were known for taking in all patients, regardless of their origins or ability to pay. Which was the way it should be. It was also why we got the interesting cases.
“Go ahead and get dressed. I’ll see you in five weeks,” I told the gorgon. “The nurse out front will set your appointment.”
I ducked out of the examination room and handed the chart to our charge nurse, Holly, who was one of the only full humans in our unit.
She tilted her head, flipping her blond ponytail to one side. She’d gone from red streaks in her hair to pink. I liked it. It softened her up.
“Rough one, Dr. Robichaud?” she asked.
“Nah, everything’s going to be fine,” I replied. “Even so, you’ll want to keep your eyes averted when our patient comes out,” I warned her. Just in case.
Flesh-to-stone injuries were painful and time consuming to treat. We needed Holly on her feet.
I followed her to the front, where she had her desk.
We’d converted the surgery recovery tent into a makeshift clinic, with curtained rooms running the length of it—eight on each side. At the front sat the nurse’s station, which was basically a red metal desk with a portable file cabinet behind it.
“It’s quiet around here,” Holly said, slipping behind the desk and starting a new file for Medusa.
“I like quiet. Quiet is good.”
Peace had broken out exactly three weeks, one day, and six hours ago. It was an uneasy truce. We all knew it wouldn’t last. Still, at the MASH 3063rd, we were going to take what we could get.
The younger gods had revolted against the older gods right around the time Troy had fallen. Before this month, neither side had even called for as much as a cease-fire in the last seven hundred years.
A lot of them didn’t want peace now, but my hot Greek boyfriend and I had fulfilled a prophecy and screwed them over on it.
Holly had refilled her M&M jar, the foul temptress. I stole a handful.
The prophecies came in sets of three, and shockingly enough they were about a healer who could see the dead. Me. They gave nebulous warnings about disasters and opportunities, sending me scrambling as fate came crashing down. If I passed the test, we were spared. For a while. If I failed, well, let’s just say it hadn’t happened. Yet.
To make things worse, my involvement had to be kept secret from everyone, including my closest friends and colleagues. The gods had outlawed my particular gift. Exposing myself would mean a slow, painful death. If I was lucky. More likely, I would be tortured eternally by something creative and mythical, like being tied to a rock while a python devoured my small intestine or set on fire upside down while spiders nested under my toenails.
Still, I was glad I’d taken the latest risk and bought us a little peace. At the moment, patients were living instead of dying.
If they survived their injuries, immortals healed fast. The last of our soldiers in recovery had gone home a week after the cease-fire began.
So we’d adapted. We’d changed. Now we were treating real problems, instead of endless battle injuries. We were making these creatures’ lives better. As far as I was concerned, that was the way things were supposed to work.
Of course there was no telling when the gods would start up again, or who would fire first. I leaned against the edge of the desk, finishing off my M&M’s.
Holly eyed me, as if she knew what I was thinking. “The colonel has us stocking up on everything.”
“Good.” We’d kept our heads on our shoulders this long by being prepared, fast, and more than a little lucky.
Unfortunately, luck can only get you so far.
* * *
Once Medusa had made her way out, with her vitamins and all of her questions answered, I signed out of the clinic. Technically, I’d been coming off duty when I’d grabbed her chart. Still, it seemed like the gorgon had needed a friendly female ear. Or at the very least, someone who wasn’t squeamish around snakes.
I banged out the door and into the heart of the MASH 3063rd. I’d gotten into medicine to make a difference, to treat the creatures that others couldn’t—or wouldn’t.
Then representatives from the new god army had showed up at my door. I’d been drafted, forced to leave my practice in New Orleans, for this.
It was hard to believe sometimes that it had been only seven years ago. Most days, it seemed like a lifetime.
The suns were setting low over the limbo landscape, throwing off brilliant oranges and purples. A wide desert stretched beyond the tents of our MASH unit.
Underfoot, and as far as the eye could see, the bare, red landscape was littered with rock.
It was how I’d pictured Mars as a kid.
The entire place was flat, save for the cemetery. We had a hard time digging into the limbo rock, so it was more efficient to make a dirt hill for the bodies.
“Hold up!” I heard from two buildings down. Shirley was stubbing out a cigarette in front of Colonel Kosta’s office. She worked as the company clerk, and the commander’s private secretary. “Have you heard?” she asked, red hair sticking every which way out of her bun as she jogged toward me.
“What? That the USO is sending us a Sycion lyre quartet?” I’d heard. “I wish the gods would appoint somebody new to the entertainment committee.” I’d settle for anybody whose idea of a good time went beyond lutes, fire eating, and ancient plays. My life was already a Greek tragedy.
“No.” She stopped in front of me, her eyes swimming with sympathy. “Galen just got called back.”
Cold apprehension seized me. Hell and damnation. I knew this was coming someday, but that didn’t stop my stomach from turning to lead. Galen of Delphi was the commander of the Green Hawk Special Forces team and, well, let’s just say we’d been enjoying the break in the fighting a little more than most. He was on leave from his unit, due to a paperwork mistake that I’d hoped it would take the army a long, long time to rectify.
My throat felt tight. “Where is he?”
She glanced toward the shadows past the cemetery. “I think he went out to Father McArio’s.”
Our unit chaplain. “Okay, thanks.” I headed straight across the common area. Father lived past the graveyard and through the junk depot, in a little hutch on the very outskirts of camp. He claimed to enjoy the solitude. I suspected he was secretly ministering to the lost souls of limbo.
I scrambled up the rise toward the cemetery, almost thankful for the energy burn. My mind was racing. It was too soon to lose Galen. We’d barely dated. I didn’t know where this was going.
Wooden grave markers of all shapes and sizes stood at attention. These were the doctors and the nurses, the mechanics and the clerks. People like me, who would never make it out of limbo. Not unless the war ended for good.
“Petra,” Galen called, emerging from behind a tangle of burned-out jeeps. He strode toward me, and I took off in a run.
He wore black combat fatigues with a Ken rune etched in red on his left shoulder. It was the symbol of flame, sex, action, and heroism, and the man had it all in spades.
“I just heard,” I said, dodging graves, rushing into his arms. He held me tight and squeezed. God, I was going to miss him. I closed my eyes. “When do you leave?”
“In an hour.”
My eyes flew open. “What?”
That was ridiculous. He had to pack, prepare. We had to say good-bye.
He stood in front of me, all brute force and power. He was built for combat, but he couldn’t fight this. “You know the army.”
Did I ever. I understood it the moment I’d sat in my little paranormal clinic in New Orleans and opened the New Order Army draft notice.
My dad couldn’t even see me off as they led me out into the depths of the bayou to a portal that hung like a misty cloud amid a tangle of cypress trees. Before I could say Bad idea, I was in the red, flat wastelands of limbo.
Still, Galen should have been different. He was with an elite unit that took on the most important, and deadly, missions. In the past, he’d been given special consideration. He was one of them—the immortals—until a risk he took for me drew the ire of the gods.
They’d had stripped him of his demi-god status. Now he was human, and he was leaving to fight immortals.
I might never see him again.
“It’s too soon,” I said, running my hands down his uniform. I wished there was something I could do to stop this, to buy more time.
He lowered his mouth to mine in a searing kiss. It was like coming home. I gripped the collar of his combat fatigues, drawing tight against him. I couldn’t imagine giving this man up.
I’d had him in bed every night for almost a month, exploring every part of him, coming together hot and slick and naked. I knew exactly what it was like to cling to him as he drove into me. And I knew the sweet ecstasy of making this elite warrior shudder and moan my name when he came.
He was set up in the VIP tent, which was a slice of heaven. Afterward, we’d laugh and talk and feed each other fruit from the incredible daily ration they gave him. He had to keep up his strength, after all.
“Gods, you’re beautiful,” he murmured, sliding a hand under my surgical scrubs, drawing it up my side until he cupped my breast. The nipple hardened instantly.
I nibbled at his ear. “Well, I never imagined this as the most romantic spot.” At least we were alone.
He drew a breath. “Don’t tease.” He leaned his forehead against mine. “I could stay here for eternity and still never get enough of you.”
“I like the staying-for-eternity part.”
We rested for a moment. There were no right words; Nothing either of us could say would make this better.
He drew me close and stared out over the darkened cemetery.
I traced my fingers along his bicep, a few inches below his unit patch. There was a scar there, crisscrossing over to his chest. I couldn’t see it, but I knew it was there. I knew every inch of him. “It’s going to be okay,” I said.
“No, it’s not,” he said into my hair. His posture was stiff. As he pulled back, his face was a mask of pain and regret. “Petra.” The agony was clear in his voice. “We can’t see each other anymore.”
For a split second, I didn’t understand what he said. “What?” He hesitated for a moment and I knew. I knew. My ears buzzed and my brain threatened to explode. “You’re breaking up with me?”
He winced as if I’d slapped him. “I don’t want to.” He took me by the shoulders, as if he could somehow will me to understand. “I received my orders this morning. What I’m going to do—” He stopped, shook his head. “—what I must do could expose you and your secret. I’m not going to take that chance.”
Expose me? “What’s going on?”
He stiffened and dropped his hands. “It’s classified.”
“Do not pull that shit.”
His jaw was tight, his expression guarded, and I realized I was talking to Galen the warrior instead of Galen the man. “If there was another way, I’d find it. You know I’d fight for you. I’d do anything to be with you. But I’m not going to lose you. I’m not going to damn you.” He spoke as if he were in physical pain. “We have to cut it off. Now.”
What the hell was going on? And “why is this your decision? What about me? Tell me what’s going on and we can fight this.” Whatever this was, we could face it together.
He bristled. “This isn’t up for debate. I’m not going to let you do anything stupid that could get you killed.”
Oh sure. Fine. “But it’s okay for you to die.”
He cleared his throat, and suddenly I felt horribly guilty. There was a real chance I would never see him again, even if he wasn’t being an idiot and breaking up with me.
He said the words slowly, as if he’d gone over them so many times in his mind that they were permanently fixed. “We knew when I lost my powers that eventually it was going to end that way,” he said. “Please. Don’t let this be the way we say good-bye.”
I planted my hands on my hips and stared him right in the baby blues. Too bad for him I sucked at going along with shit that didn’t make sense. “I’m sorry to fuck up your noble moment here, but this is war. We’re soldiers. We fight. And I’m going to be with you until the end whether you like it or not.”
“You are in danger,” he said, his words clipped. “Every second I stay here, intimate with you, you are at risk.”
He didn’t get it. It was like I had to pound it into his head with a hammer. “It’s my choice.” I’d been through enough already. This was war. I’d buried my first love, Marc, when he was killed. I never regretted sticking with him until the end, and I wasn’t about to abandon Galen, either.
“So it’s a risk. What kind of risk?” I’d chanced the wrath of the gods themselves last month. I could handle whatever Galen had to face. I could see him working to close himself off.
He scrubbed a hand over his face. “I shouldn’t have even told you that much.”
“This is insane. You’ve let me in on things before.”
He broke. “Not this time,” he thundered.
“You’re an asshole. You know that?”
He cursed under his breath before the wall was back.
Well, I wasn’t going to let him get away with it. I couldn’t. Tears heated the corners of my eyes. “You said you loved me.”
“I do,” he said, his voice heavy with emotion.
He reached out slowly, deliberately, and tucked a stray lock of hair behind my ear.
I flinched. I didn’t want him touching me. I was weak when it came to that.
“I want you to be happy,” he said simply.
Gods, that was the same thing Marc had said. Only I didn’t let him get away with it. I waited for him. I stood by him. He knew I loved him.
Galen ran a hand through his short, clipped hair. His jaw ground tight. “If I somehow make it back in five, ten, fifty years and you’re still here and still available—then it’s fate. But if I come back and find you happy, I’m okay with that, too.” He was intense, almost pleading. I’d never seen him like that before.
His eyes glittered. “If I die, I don’t want to go knowing this time we had only caused you misery in the end.”
“But I’m miserable now.”
His expression softened. “Don’t hold back your life the way you did before I met you. You were only existing.” His fingers skimmed my cheek. “More than anything, I want you to live, even if I can’t be there with you.”
I didn’t know what to say.
He brushed his lips against my forehead. “Good-bye, Petra,” he said, before he walked out of my life.
Copyright © 2013 by Angie Fox