The Greek sun is oppressive as they enter the third destroyed town.
Varia feels it beat down upon her skin, sweat on sweat, dirt becoming a second layer of flesh. The other Amazons search the edges of this place for any sign of the living.
And they find none.
Just like the others. Varia feels her body unconsciously sag with the weight of so much death. To think there was a time I loved the sight of blood being spilled...
A wise leader knows the difference between bloodshed for life and bloodshed for joy.
Varia welcomes Artemis into her own thoughts, glad for the support and the calmness of her words.
Still no luck with Xena then?
I never knew a mortal could be this strong. Or this stubborn.
Not been paying much attention to Xena when she was alive, eh?
Artemis chuckles and it is a rich sound, so in contrast to the burning of homes and smoke and the scent of death all around them. Varia clings to the warmth of Artemis now. It is a reminder of all that the Amazons stand for, fight for... And Varia finds that she craves solace today, as her eyes find the first of deeply-dug pits, filled with those who refuse Zeus and his new order.
Death affects all differently.
Varia finds it twisting her stomach, turning her inside-out. Other Amazons set to praying, asking Artemis to bless the souls and give them safe passage.
Can you even do that now? Can you guide anyone's soul now? Varia questions in her mind, but receives no answer. The comfort, easily there just moments before, is removed.
Some of the farmers look away, in anger and grief. Others, like the centaurs, seem distant... as if seeing another time or place, another day of innocents dying.
And then... there is Xena.
Varia watches the woman move about efficiently. Each hut and house is searched, for the living or for a killer, Varia does not know.
Xena is not talking much now, preferring to stay silent during the day and wander off at night. It breeds a sense of foreboding among many of them, a sense that things will not end well.
And yet, when Varia looks closer, there is a new edge to Xena's face.
It is not hope. It is not assuredness.
But it is something in-between those feelings. It adds a manic and determined gleam to those blue eyes.
This reverie is broken by the sound of a distant explosion. Heads and eyes dart toward that sickening sound.
"Is that...?" A man questions, gripping his sword with a shaking hand.
"Athens is a day from here. We might be too late to save the city." A centaur speaks up.
"We should keep moving then. Right?" One Amazon looks to Varia. The others crowd in closer, waiting for a command. Varia looks for Xena.
She is on the move. I am trying to stop her. Hurry! Artemis shouts into Varia's mind, rattling the woman's composure with the force of the yell.
Varia looks around at these faces, the fear and the fire she finds in each one's eyes. It is something to be awed by, something to remember... if the day brings about nothing but demise.
"We move quickly now. Amazons, take to the trees and scout ahead, make sure our path is clear." Varia says loudly, taking the time to grip each arm in solidarity.
"Artemis, protect us if you can." She whispers before her feet begin to run and the sound of rushing wind is all she can hear.
Xena! Please listen to me... Put aside your anger, your will... You choose to take on Zeus alone, without assistance from myself or the others? You condemn them all to death!
All Artemis can hear is the churning of Xena's breathing, the false sound of blood pumping in those not-so-human veins. She studies the woman's face, a curious mixture of steel and anxiousness in those features.
Their lives mean nothing to you? Is that how Gabrielle would want you to solve this situation, by blindly running into the fray and sacrificing the lives of others?
Xena does not seem to hear her or to acknowledge Artemis at all.
I can end this now, Xena of Amphipolis. I can take my powers away and watch your body sink into the ground.
The threat brings the first glimmer of awareness to Xena's expression. And it is a faint grin.
She spoke to me.
Who do you--
Gabrielle. I heard her, four days ago. She is fighting back and she reached out to me.
Xena's voice is tinged with desperate joy, a fearful and timid quality that makes Artemis shake her spectral head in wonderment at the fragility of mortals.
Xena, you know that that is... It is not possible for Gabrielle to survive, even if she somehow manages to best Zeus and weaken his control over her body. The toll of the fighting will cripple her in so many ways.
You can never understand, Artemis, no matter how hard you say you do. I cannot give up on Gabrielle. If all I get is one moment more with her, then that is what I strive for. You brought me back for the Amazons and I have helped them. They are not alone now. Varia will lead them... But I must go to where Zeus is, to where Gabrielle is.
Artemis is silent and Xena stops her steady pace. The goddess watches the woman, watches as the softest of smiles grace Xena's lips.
"Help me get your Chosen back." Xena says aloud.
And Artemis, wondering if the wisest choice is being truly made, wraps herself about Xena's body. She slips into the woman's skin, fills up every corner and every nerve. She can hear Xena sigh and roll her shoulders.
"And if I can take out a few of Zeus's followers along the way, to help your Amazons, then so be it." Xena says offhandedly, making Artemis wonder - not for the first time - at the nature of Xena of Amphipolis.
You are unlike any mortal I have never known.
Xena chuckles at this.
Why do you do this? Can't you see that I am winning?
Gabrielle tries to shut him out, but with a glimpse of the real world... come the visions of all the death in the wake of Zeus. It is pure destruction.
Yes. If only you'd see things my way, how stunning your body is on the battlefield, how far we can go with this power...
You are mad.
Zeus laughs as another ripple of aftershock goes through the ground. How inventive the people of Chin are, to create something so like greek fire, but in a form easy to carry.
Truly, some mortals were worth keeping around.
I am not mad, child. I just have a goal in mind. Whether you see its greatness or not is of no consequence to me.
It will be once I am free of you.
And Gabrielle pushes again, despite tiredness. She finds the crevices and cracks in Zeus and his hold over her. The grief is washed away, replaced by solidness to Gabrielle's soul.
I lost that after Japa. After Xena.
Zeus taunts and teases, tries to pick apart Gabrielle's resolve. But she does not stop, not this time.
Each view of the living world makes her stronger.
Gabrielle does not feel alone now. There is a hand at her back, sure and calm. It is guiding her forward.
And somewhere, banked deep in her gut, Gabrielle feels Xena.
Not just the memory, not just the lessons learned so long ago... But Xena, undiluted and raw, a force to be reckoned with.
Even now, Zeus, you cannot stop her. You cannot stop me.
You'd be willing to risk everyone on that sentiment, Gabrielle?
"Yes. To settle for less is to lose." Gabrielle says, her voice loud in the darkness.
And, even though it is brief, she feels the sun on her long-neglected skin, coating her in it's glow.
It is warm. It is real.
Zeus reins her in, jerking her back with venom. But Gabrielle just laughs.
Even if this day brings about my end, I will not give you the satisfaction of my sorrow. I will go down fighting.
Zeus growls into the blackness.
You have chosen your fate. And I intend to make it a painful one.
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