Varia looks into Xena’s eyes and finds them blank. Otherworldly and dark, staring past the fire in this cave and into some place no one else can see.
The amazons are silent. Even Varia feels as though she has lost the ability to use her tongue.
A sudden tingling along Varia’s spine makes her whip her head around, searching for whatever causes this disturbance. No one else seems to notice her movements. Not even Xena, silent and like a stone.
She has a hard task ahead, Varia.
She knows this is Artemis speaking to her, caressing her body with an unearthly voice. Varia takes a deep breath and lets her eyes close for the first time in days.
Zeus has our Queen… how can we win?
There is always hope, Varia. Never let your brave heart waver.
I don’t think I have much bravery left.
It takes courage to stand and fight when you have nothing left. Do you know the story of the Six Wishes?
It is how you got your bow, yes?
Yes. I climbed into Zeus’s lap, weeping as children are wont to do. And all I wanted was for my existence to be as I chose. So, he granted them to me. Kind and loving, he gave me all I wanted.
Varia holds back her words, her thoughts of hatred for this being… for Zeus. If Artemis hears them, the goddess does not speak of it.
All my wishes combined created the hunt, Varia. A trait passed on to my Amazons, the need to never stop the hunt, whether for food or for sport or for honor. The hunt, though hard, breeds courage. If you remove your eyes from that beast… you lose it all.
Varia feels the air shift, turning cold against her skin. And Xena is looking at her, piercing blue eyes cutting through the night and flames.
“You’ll be queen after all this is said and done.” Xena’s voice is hollow.
“I’d rather it come under different circumstances.”
Xena looks to the ground for a second.
“As do I.”
“What do we do now?” Varia asks.
“Zeus is building up a following. They are not all fighters, but they are fervent in their devotion. We need more help. The amazons are too few and I am just one woman.”
“With a goddess in you.”
Xena lets a tight smile form on her lips.
“Artemis and I aren’t really friends right now.”
Varia wonders if that is why the goddess decided to speak to her, to boost her failing morale.
“But you have her powers still?”
“And what of Gabrielle?”
The question hangs so heavily that Varia is surprised that she cannot reach out and touch it.
“As I said, you’ll be queen soon enough.” Xena’s tone shifts to a place very dangerous. Varia knows it is foolish to tread further, but something makes her continue on.
Perhaps my bravery is returning… albeit in a strange way…
“What will happen to her?”
Xena remains quiet and motionless.
“I ask because I do care, Xena… She came back here due to a vision, a vision involving me as queen… I feel it is my duty to try and save her, not just as a fellow Amazon… but as—“
Xena gets up and moves so quickly, her large hand gripping Varia’s jaw.
Varia eyes widen and she wants to fight, to get away. But it is the sound of Xena’s voice that stills her body. It is the sound of Xena’s voice that actually calms Varia. It is the sorrow of someone who cannot change a thing and has to watch the world take all things of value… It is pain.
“She cannot be saved. There is no way to save her. So, keep your noble intentions to yourself and do what you have to do… And leave Zeus to me.”
None of the words hold venom, just agony. Xena lets Varia go and goes outside of the cave, into the night. The other amazons look shaken, but Varia assures them that all is well.
You will make a good Queen, my Amazon.
Varia sags to the ground and wraps an arm about her knees.
All this time I’ve wished for a chance to lead my sisters… and now, I’d give anything to not have it happen. So much is lost now. Who will help us?
The hunt is on, Varia. Friends will ally with you and you will not be alone. They feel the call to arms, to battle.
So there is still a chance of victory?
Of course. Zeus might have it easy with mortals, but not with spirits like himself. I am here to stop him.
Stopping the former king of the gods, using the body of a dead warrior… Varia wishes for simpler times and wonders if her tears could bring about these wishes granted.
Aphrodite does not like to read.
She is more of a physical girl.
And Ares, while a master of deciphering a map, never had much cause to pick up a scroll.
Unless it could somehow help him in the grand scheme of things.
So, to say it is slow going in the halls of eternal knowledge, is an understatement.
“No, sis. Just like the last time you asked… five minutes ago.”
“Hey, no need to get touchy. I’m just impatient.
Ares goes through the tenth scroll concerning the hymns of Apollo and then stands up.
“Look, I don’t think there is a damn thing in all this. Just old exploits and some dirty skeletons.”
“At least you got some juicy stuff. All I’ve found is these scrolls on how much Selene secretly hated the oxen who pulled her chariot. Man, could she go on and on!”
Ares leans into Aphrodite’s face.
“What did you expect to find?”
“I don’t know… Some secret way of stopping our father and saving Gabrielle.”
“Don’t ask for much, do you?”
Aphrodite smacks his shoulder as he smirks at her. This is the most time they’ve spent with each other in years and the goddess of love finds that she likes it.
Olympus is so quiet now. It is nice to have someone to talk to and listen to once in a while who isn’t just some down-trodden soul looking for love.
Ares looks at the piles of scrolls that they have yet to touch and sighs.
It’s not that he likes Gabrielle… but his father takes center stage when it comes to Ares and dislike.
And, besides, helping Gabrielle is always the way to help Xena.
Ares can’t seem to shake the affection for that woman, so he doesn’t try to. Not that he gets all mushy about it – that’s for Aphrodite’s followers.
It’s kind of funny that I have a thing for Xena and Aphrodite has a…something… for Gabrielle.
“Why do you like that bard so much?” Ares asks, twirling a scroll between his fingers.
“Well, I mean, lots of reasons.”
Ares gets a big grin on his face and crosses his arms.
“I think you’ve got a crush.”
“Hey, it’s okay. I don’t judge.”
“There is nothing to judge!”
Aphrodite grabs the scroll and glares at her brother. And Ares just laughs out loud, shaking his head. She opens the scroll and is barely registering the words, still a little miffed at her brother’s ribbing. Me, a crush on sweet Gabrielle… as if… I mean, really…
Then she pauses and looks at the scroll more closely.
“I think I’ve found something.”
“Right. Any excuse not to speak of your lust for Gabrielle, I get it…”
“I’m serious. Look at this.”
The god of war and the goddess of love settle down, side by side, for the long tale of a ritual performed many, many moons ago. A ritual performed by a fearful god, binding his soul to a piece of the earth… just in case the Twilight truly occurred. This god told no one, save for this scroll.
This piece of earth, a stone the size of an arm and the color of the sea, would remain hidden unless needed. And if the day came where this god needed the soul returned, he would seek a body to use, to mold. This person would then become the vessel for the god and bring about a new reign of…
“Zeus.” Aphrodite and Ares say at the same time.
Aphrodite hurriedly goes through the rest of the story, hoping there might be something to save the day. Ares, on the other hand, is very quiet.
Father knew all along and let all of our family die. What a bastard.
“I got it!” Aphrodite shouts.
“I think, if I’ve read this correctly, that if you can find the stone and destroy it, you permanently destroy the soul itself.”
“It says all that in there?”
“It implies it.”
“And you want to go up against Zeus, find this stone and hope that it works out the way you want?”
Aphrodite grins at him.
“Yep, pretty much. Are you in?”
Ares doesn’t like battles you can’t see the end of, battles that you can’t find the winning in. But, then again, it is a challenge. Sometimes, in the life of an immortal, it is the challenges that make being around forever an appealing thought.
“Well, I guess I can’t stand by and let the lady you love get killed.” Ares says with a sigh.
“I’ll let that one slide, because I am so happy you are agreeing to help.”
And Aphrodite pulls him into a hug, one that he surprisingly returns. They stay that way for a moment longer, both of them realizing that all the family they need is right here.
It is hard, at first, to even make a dent in his hold.
Zeus is strong… and getting stronger. Gabrielle can feel his grasp on her like a tidal wave. It keeps pushing her down and tries to drown her with power, with darkness.
But I won’t give up. Not this time. I’ve been here too long… been in this state of grief and despair, in this self-pitying fog… No more.
Then, Gabrielle finds a foothold and starts the long climb upward. He is not pleased, but then… why should he be? All his plans are dependent on my compliance and I refuse to help him anymore.
Somewhere inside, all the facets of herself cheer and it makes Gabrielle’s heart sing. For the first time in a long while, she feels hope and courage and a reason to strive.
No longer is it bound to a life lost, this joy… but to the simple fact of being.
I wonder if that is what Eli feels, if that is what I was trying to learn in India, if that is what all this is about… in some strange way…
I will stop you. Even if it means dragging you to your death.
And Gabrielle’s laugh ripples outward, greeting Zeus like a slap to the face.
Death is what I’ve been doing, slowly and surely since Japa. I do not fear your version of death.
And so your wish to see Xena again is also to be lost? For I am the one who brings her to you.
Xena comes to kill you and I intend to help her, even if I cannot get free of you. My life for the lives of others. It’s a good trade.
Always the self sacrifice, Gabrielle. Do you think Xena will let you go so easily?
That knocks Gabrielle back a bit and her grip lessens. It brings up so many questions, ones only Xena can answer. And they are answers I fear knowing.
Xena, always finding a way to redeem herself and still be standing at the end of it all… and yet, Xena did let go. Gabrielle hates that she wants to know why, even though it is obvious.
No less painful, though.
I think Xena will falter and not be able to bring the blade down upon you. And then, as I have said, the world will be mine.
Gabrielle ignores him and keeps moving, pushing at the barrier of self, of bones, of thoughts. She catches very brief glimpses of light, of trees, of the moon.
She wonders if Xena will come. She wonders if Xena will do what is right.
Sweat breaks out upon her brow and she welcomes the sensation.
It is life along her skin. It is being alive.
Oh Xena, if you can hear me, know that I understand what must come to pass. I only wish we had more time… for talking, for putting old wounds to rest… for everything… Know that I am trying, that I am sorry for putting you in this place… Know that I love you, always…
Xena would give anything to live in her dreams.
In them, all the things that have gone wrong are suddenly made right. Disappointments are rectified, lives are saved… Xena fixes that which was broken.
When she was alive, truly alive, Xena did not give much thought to dreaming.
There were nightmares.
Visions of death and blood and hatred, all of them slipping over her body like a chill. She did not like to sleep, because all she saw was the horror of her own existence.
In this limbo, though, her dreams are sweet.
They pull her into a world of forgiveness and love, into the embrace of her mother and brother, into the understanding gazes of many friends…
And Gabrielle is there, promising that everything will be okay again.
Beautiful green eyes, colored with affection, beckon Xena closer and in those familiar arms… Xena is held, is cared for.
In these dreams, Xena finds home.
But Xena is awake now. She is walking from village to village, mindlessly doing what she must and gathering a rag-tag band of people.
Centaurs and men, women and warriors, farmers and fieldhands… They do not support the old gods and not all of them know how to fight, but they are determined.
Not all of them trust the Amazons, but they align themselves together.
They do not trust Xena, but they know they cannot win without her.
A young boy comes up and tugs at Xena’s leather skirt. She looks down into hazel eyes and feels a pang of sorrow, quickly shoved away.
“I’ve read of you. My brother says you are a legend, that you defeated gods before.”
“I’m not a legend.”
“You sure? ‘Coz this story sure makes you sound like one…”
“What story is this?”
Xena watches him run off and then come running back, clutching in his hand a tattered scroll. As if I need to ask, as if I do not know whose hand wrote this story…
He rattles off the tale of the twilight of the gods.
Everything so vivid and so real, like it was yesterday, and Xena has to fight to stay standing.
It catches her off guard, hearing Gabrielle’s words from the lips of this boy.
He finishes and looks up at her, all wide-eyed. All innocent.
“A nice story, but that’s not me.” Xena says quietly before turning away and continuing on.
Something clutches at her gut, turning her inside out. It makes her look back at the boy and, for a moment, Xena sees Gabrielle.
Just standing there, as plain as day.
Is this an illusion? Zeus deciding to play a little game before I kill him?
And Gabrielle speaks, though no sound passes through her lips. Xena strains to hear something, anything…
The warrior fights the urge to run to this apparition, for she knows it is not truly Gabrielle.
How could it be her? She is trapped, she is one with Zeus now!
Xena shuts her eyes tightly and turns back around, trying not to run away to the shelter of the surrounding forest… and then, she hears it.
Gabrielle’s voice, the softest whisper, floating in the breeze.
Xena spins around, but Gabrielle is gone. The boy is back with his brother. The people who have decided to fight are crowding around her and the Amazons are shouldering their weapons.
Artemis tugs at Xena’s mind, begging for entrance.
But all Xena can focus on is the word hanging in the air, just out of reach.
She said always.
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