1016 AD, omega timeline
"Did you people have anything resembling a plan?" Marle shouted. She was hanging from a piece of the Infinite Boredom Wagon, that Kurt had shot through with his newly-rebuilt grapple. The line ran forty yards up, over the rail of Zenan Bridge, and three times around Kurt's gauntlet. The constant winds of San Dorino Strait threatened to swing her into the bridge support.
"This is the plan!" Kurt shouted back, which was approximately true.
Marle looked down below her, at the splintered wreckage of her wagon and a good bit of the bridge deck drifting away through the Strait. Her dress, now about forty pounds of ruined, waterlogged silk, hung from her like an overly affectionate quilt. "You are the worst planner I've ever met!"
Kurt rolled his eyes. "You're not under arrest any more, right?" Actually, the satchel charge had done way more damage than he'd expected to the bridge. On the upside, there were fewer guards left than he'd thought there would be.
"Could you pull her up a little faster, please?" Zeo panted, fighting the last three all at once. Fina, fighting with a steel weapon for the first time, had just finished her one opponent.
"Whine whine whine," Kurt griped, grabbing the railing with his gauntlet and pinning the grapple line down. "Tell someone they're going to inherit a kingdom and suddenly nothing is good enough for them." He opened a clasp on the wrist, pulled his hand out with the gauntlet still gripping, and picked up his multigun. He aimed, fired, dropped the gun, and put his hand back in the gauntlet before he heard his target's armor hit the ground. "I get no gratitude at all."
"Thanks, Kurt!" Zeo shouted, running the second guard through and then swinging him into the third. They both toppled through the splintered hole in the bridge deck.
"Yeah, yeah." He finally got Marle high enough that she could grab the railing and pull herself up.
"Now what?" she said.
There was a huge hole in Zenan Bridge. They were standing in the middle of five bodies of questionable humanity in Guardian armor. Traffic was backed up in both directions, because everyone had stopped to stare at the noise and excitement. Posters of all of them were going to be on every tree and wall in Guardia tomorrow morning, and any vestige of Marle's cover was entirely shot.
"Um," Kurt said. "Did you ever want to be a time traveler?"
"I've been kidnapped by idiots," Marle said. Then she pulled off her dress, revealing her Red Rose costume and weapons underneath, though she left her mask off. She put a fresh string on her bow from a sealed pouch at her belt. "All right, idiots, north or south?"
"South," Kurt said.
"And quickly," Fina added. "The King's men from the northern end will be here soon, even through this crowd."
"Wait." Zeo cleaned his katana on the splintered edge of the hole, and sheathed it. He left Mune in his hand, and turned to face the stunned, staring crowd of jammed traffic. "Guardia!" They flinched back. He pointed at Marle. "This is your princess, Guardia. Your future. Her Highness Aliza. She was arrested today, by the king, for protesting his tyranny, his rule by fear. Arrested," Zeo pointed Mune at a fallen guard, "by the same cowardly thugs, their faces hidden by armor, that come in the night and make your friends, your family disappear." Some of this he'd heard from Crono and Lucca and his grandmother, some he'd deduced from what he knew about DuFrey, some he'd guessed from his history lessons.
He held up Mune. "Long ago, there was a rebellion against an evil queen. When the people rose up against her, they went into her palace carrying a knife, carved from dreamstone, as the visible sign of their hope. Now your hope has a new sign, not a red knife but a Red Rose. The time will come, Guardia, when we will return, and the Red Rose will lead you into the halls of that king who has betrayed his trust, his duty, and his family." There was a gust of wind that ruffled Zeo's clothes and hair. He'd been expecting it - there was always wind on Zenan Bridge. "Guardia! This is the wind of a new age!"
"The Red Rose!" someone shouted from the crowd. His answer was so prompt that Zeo was sure this wasn't the first revolutionary speech he'd attended. It was a bad sign for DuFrey that there was someone like that in a randomly chosen crowd. "The red knife and the Red Rose!"
Even worse, the crowd followed his lead. "The red knife and the Red Rose!" they thundered.
"Okay," Zeo said over his shoulder. "Now we go south." The crowd parted, and they went at a jog. The soldiers coming up behind them were going to have a much harder time.
"That was well done, Zeo," Fina said. The words were quiet and mild, but Zeo grinned.
"Yeah, well. It's good to finally get a chance to use all those rhetoric lessons." He looked at Marle, obviously expecting agreement.
"We've wasted enough time," she snarled. Kurt winced, and sighed. "Run faster."
"Wow, what crawled up your butt?" Zeo did run faster, though. "Hopefully we can do this without the giant monster skeleton," he joked.
"No kidding," Kurt panted.
There were shouts and ripples in the crowd in front of them. "Did your brilliant plan include a way to deal with the soldiers at the Southern checkpoint?" Marle asked. Zeo looked at Kurt. Kurt opened his mouth to explain that he had no idea, but he needed his breath. He just shook his head. Together they looked at Fina, who shrugged.
"Figures." She cupped her hands to her mouth. "Lieutenant!" she shouted. She pushed toward the oncoming soldiers. "Lieutenant!"
"One side, move to one - Princess! Are you all right?"
"Yes, I'm fine. Go help the rescue efforts, and send a runner back to the checkpoint to tell them I'm coming. Hurry!"
"Yes, Highness!" The officer saluted and ordered his men. Marle continued on imperiously, and the soldiers didn't even look at Zeo and the others.
"That," Marle said, "is how it's done. No stupid delays."
"Yeah," Zeo snapped back, "and in about ten seconds that officer is gonna stop thinking about your face and realize you were wearing the bottom four-fifths of a rebel wanted poster. Your turn to run faster."
"Augh! Stop saying that!" They all turned to look at Kurt. "Some people... need to walk... once in a while!"
"You okay?" Zeo said. "We still have to move."
"Yeah. But jog. Let's jog."
"Don't worry," Zeo said. "Once we're across the bridge we can lose 'em in Fiona's Forest."
"Fiona's what?" Marle stared at him. They came to the edge of the bridge, and instead of the deep, shadowy, three-hundred-year-old forest Kurt knew, there was only dry stones and blowing sand. "It's the San Dorino Desert. Obviously your tutor skipped the geography lessons." Zeo and Kurt stared at the wasteland.
The guard that had been sent back ran up to them. "Princess, who are these people? Why are you wearing that - " Whack. He collapsed to the ground, already snoring. Fina shrugged and shouldered her glowing spear.
"If it is desert, it is desert," she said. "Which way, Zeo?"
Zeo had a string tied around Mune, now. He dangled it, let the knife spin. "East. Toward the mountains."
To Zeo's disgust, Marle knew way more than him about traveling in the desert. It wasn't his fault - his Guardia didn't have a desert.
The pace she set seemed ridiculously slow. But Marle insisted it was the fastest they could go, and that there was no way a large group of soldiers in armor could just charge off into the desert with no preparation. "Tomorrow," she said. "That's when we'll have to watch out."
Toward sundown, Marle left them in the shadow of a large rock, while she went to steal water. It was an oasis, she said, that was all that was left of the town of San Dorino. "Yeah," Zeo said, "but why don't we all go?"
"They can't send out a big enough force to find us," Marle said, "but they'll have sent scouts ahead to hold the oasis."
"So you're going to fight by yourself? That's stupid!"
"Who should I bring, brat? Kurt can barely stand up. Fina can't handle the heat - I've seen her heal herself of heatstroke three times today. You've been force-marching on a wounded leg all day. Don't treat me like a helpless child, Zeo. I'm carrying your weight here."
"You still can't take them all alone!" Zeo shouted.
"I'm not going to take them, you muscle-bound moron! I'm going to sneak by them. They won't even see me. Don't bother trying to keep up, or I'll have to haul your passed-out butt home on my way back." And she had stalked away. Zeo threw up his hands and ranted behind her back to Kurt and Fina, but he didn't follow. She came back with a gallon pot of water under each arm and a thin scratch across her face. Her quiver was a few arrows emptier than it had been, but she insisted nothing had gone wrong.
Kurt dipped water out of the jug eagerly. Fina dipped a thumb in, and then brushed the water across Marle's cheek. "Honor to the hunters."
She twitched away. "What?"
Fina started, and looked unusually awkward. "I didn't mean to startle you. It is what I did at home, when a hunter went into danger for us all. I did it without thinking."
"But it wasn't dangerous, remember?" Zeo said. "I thought nothing went wrong."
"Don't be an ass, Zeo," Kurt said between gulps.
Zeo rolled his eyes, and drew Mune out of his belt. He dangled it from its string and let it spin. "We came too far south. The gate's that way, toward the mountains."
"Oh, right," Marle snapped back. "We should have just gone in a straight line, missed the oasis, and died of thirst. That would have been sooo much better." Marle was drinking, too. Reluctantly, Zeo scooped his cup into the jug.
"Seriously, guys," Kurt said, "knock it off. Don't ruin a good day."
"Good day?" Zeo stared at him. "We're hot and tired and thirsty…"
"And about to be cold and tired and thirsty," Marle added.
"And we're all an inch taller from sand in our boots."
"And we nearly killed you and Fina from thirst getting here."
"And Marle nearly got her face chopped off stealing you water."
"And if Zeo puts weight on his knee again he'll fall on his ass." They glared at each other again. "So what makes this a good day?"
"We blew up the Infinite Boredom Wagon," Kurt said, "and threw the pieces in the ocean."
Zeo laughed, and it only took Marle a split second to get the joke name and laugh too. "Okay, okay," Zeo said, "sorry.
"Whatever," Marle said, "it's nothing. Drink the water or you'll die."
Zeo woke in the middle of the night. He froze, listening for the sound that had woke him. There was nothing, except for the desert wind and Kurt's snoring. But Zeo's knee hurt like fire. Had he woken himself moaning? That hadn't happened since before the jailbreak.
He propped himself up on one elbow and rubbed the sleep out of his eyes. Kurt and Fina were asleep. Marle had taken the first watch. She was perched on top of the rock that sheltered their campsite, bow in hand and an arrow notched to the string. Zeo grabbed his sword belt, laying beside him, and ambled over to lean against the rock. "You can sack out, Marle. I'm awake anyway."
Marle shrugged. "I don't need much sleep. Leg bothering you?"
Pretty badly, yeah. The run through the desert must have worn it out. "Nah, it's fine."
For a while, they were silent, staring in different directions into the cold desert night. "Look," Zeo said. "I know you don't want to be here. You have your own fight. Just go ahead and leave now. I can take the watch, no one else will see you go. I'll tell them you saw a signal flare or something and had to go off on some secret mission."
Marle sighed. "Let's ignore, for a minute, the fact that you pick friends who are all smarter than you and then you think you can lie to them."
"My fight is now a sideshow. A dead end. You people are going to go back in time and change it all. You find your Gate thing and go in, and suddenly I was never born and my war never happened. Or was never needed, or something. So what exactly am I supposed to go do?" She sounded quietly furious.
"Boy," Zeo said sarcastically. "For someone who's never done it, you sure know a lot about how time travel works."
"You're the ones who told me..."
"Marle, I was never born now. Neither was Kurt. None of this makes any sense. But if Kurt and I let a little paradox stop us from doing what we had to do, you and Lucca and... and Crono would have died in the jailbreak. So don't talk to me about 'never been born.'"
"I'll say it again, Zeo. What am I supposed to do?"
"How should I know? Freedom fighter stuff. Save Guardia, Marle."
"Tch." Zeo blinked. Is that how he sounded when he was annoyed? "You care about this kingdom more than it deserves."
"You don't know what your kingdom can be, Princess Aliza. Go find out. I don't want anyone with us who has somewhere better to be."
Marle didn't have a snappy comeback for that. They kept a quiet watch for a few minutes. "So," Marle said eventually, "I sneak away in the night, and slip between the search parties coming up behind us. I can't get back across the bridge, so I go south. I find someone in Porre who knows the countersign to a Truce recognition code, and I'm somehow lucky enough that this convenient person isn't a royalist spy. They sneak me on a ferry, get me back to Truce, I report in at headquarters. And you know what they say?"
She actually paused, as if Zeo would know the answer. "I dunno. 'Hello?'"
"They say, 'Well, what are you doing here, Marle? Didn't you say the target was in the Denadoro Mountains?' Crono and Lucca made you a Red Rose mission. Apparently this is freedom fighter stuff."
Zeo shook his head. "Even if we find a Gate and leave this time, I'm not gonna be able to stop thinking about the other Guardia. I want to be sure someone's taking care of it."
Marle snorted. "Join the club. I have stopped thinking about the other Guardia exactly zero times since you told us who you were." She stood and stretched, loosening the muscles that would have gotten tight from sitting still through a long watch. "I say Crono would want me to stay with you. Unless you think you know him better than I do?"
Damn. Zeo did know him better, he'd grown up with him and Marle hadn't. But Dad had told him not to tell her that, and anyway she was right. "Fine. You're with us all the way to the Gate?"
"To the end, whatever end you think you're going to find in those mountains. But I'm not following orders from you."
Zeo chuckled. "Marle, who do you think is following orders from me? My genius best friend who doesn't believe in monarchy? The woman who was leading people twelve thousand years before I was born?"
"Yeah, sure. Well, whatever it is you think they do when you tell them things, I won't be doing it."
"Oh, good," Zeo said. "It'll be nice to have one person who doesn't make fun of me."
Fina had never seen mountains in her own time. She had seen the plains, and the bogs, and the gently rolling things her clan had called hills. Once she had been to the forest, and another time she had gone to the edge of the sea, and looked out at the eternal grey water.
The rescue of Zeo's father had begun with Kurt's grapple, pulling them up one at a time to the bridge. When the rope had carried Fina above the trees, she had seen the mountains in the twilit distance, and her breath had stopped. She'd had no idea, no concept, that the land itself could form something so magnificent. Fortunately the rope took a while to pull her up, and she'd had time to hide her feelings, as was the way when among hunters. (Some customs were apparently the same in every age.)
Now the Denadoro range was filling the northern sky, and they were to walk right up their face, like climbing straight into Hell. Fina looked around at her friends, wondering if they felt as she did. Zeo had on that sharp-eyed half-smile he had when he was about to do something painful on purpose. He was probably thinking of his knee. Marle was looking behind them again, worried about pursuit. Kurt just looked tired.
Zeo held up his spirit-knife, spinning on its string to point their way. "Still on the right trail?" Fina asked. Zeo nodded. The knife was pointed forward and, alarmingly, upward.
"I think I've got the spot on the map, too," Kurt said. He had these fascinating pictures of the land, which Fina had studied a little over his shoulder. They'd been made in his own world, not this one, but the mountains were the same even if the forest was gone. "We can keep going through valleys a little longer before we have to really climb, but we can't get around it forever, the Gate is apparently up in the peaks."
"Let's stay off the hilltops as long as we can," Marle said. "They could see us from miles away, up there."
The march across the desert had been horrible. Fina had not known that parched heat could be as unpleasant as cold snow. If the spirits had not helped her, she thought she would have died. The march up the mountains was wearying, but exhilarating. They climbed up, and up, and up, and looking back and down the view was thrilling, an incredible vista coupled with the shock and fear of climbing into the sky. Fina didn't know how Kurt and Marle could look so grim with that to look at, no matter how tired or worried they were. She did catch Zeo in flashes of good humor. His eyes would watch the air – or probably, the familiar spirit of his knife - and he'd smile just a bit. Perhaps, Fina thought, you had to be in tune with the spirits to love these terrifying mountains. Perhaps this feeling was the joy of the spirits singing in their blood.
They came over streams and rocks, around ridges and cliffs, until they came up a canyon that ended in a steep fall of rocks. Water gurgled down over the boulders, turning them into a dozen little waterfalls. "Damn," Marle sighed. "Serves us right, trying to cut a straight line through mountains," she said, though they hadn't been. "How far will we have to backtrack?"
"Who said we were backtracking?" Kurt said, catching his breath. "There's really no easy way up there anyway. We might as well start climbing now."
Fina pointed at the falls. "We're going to climb that?" The stones would be slime-slick with water. It would be like climbing a sheet of ice.
Zeo tilted his head at it. "Maybe for fun, after I get home, but I don't think it's a good idea right now." And then, absently, "As much swimming as climbing. Maybe if I took my clothes off?" Fina smirked at that image. Marle made a face like she'd smelled rotten meat. Kurt, looking embarrassed, managed a meaningful cough. "Oh," Zeo said, "Right, well, it'll probably be easier if we just go up the side." He pointed to the right, where the canyon wall was much dryer but also steeper, with only a few boulders before it became a vertical cliff.
"Sure," Marle said, "but we still have to get Kurt and Fina up." She looked at Zeo's leg. "Besides…"
"You know," Kurt interrupted, "if I had any other best friend, no one would be able to pull that wimpy-bookworm stereotype on me. I look like a wimp because I'm tagging along with His Impossible Highness over there. Can you imagine trying to keep up with Zeo for your whole life? Think you'd be a wimp after that?" Fina laughed. She'd nearly killed herself keeping up with Zeo (and Marle) for the last two days, and that was with Zeo slowed by his knee. She couldn't imagine it if he'd been hale. "I like rock climbing. It helps me think. And I can totally get up that cliff."
Marle raised an eyebrow. "All right. Get out your grapple and show me."
"I meant I could free-climb it," Kurt said. "I shouldn't use the multigun, it'll echo like thunder and someone back there might be listening. We're in a hurry, though, so I'll probably cheat and use the power gauntlet."
"And since you can keep up with Zeo, you think you can keep up with me?" Marle challenged.
"What, a race? I'm always willing to lose a race. Hey, Zeo," he said, just as Zeo was limping toward the cliff, "could you wait down here? Someone needs to rig a harness for Fina. She's no wimp either, but I don't think the Clan of the White Seal had rock climbing. We'll probably have to pull her up."
"Oh," Zeo said. "Yeah, sure." Fina saw something in his eyes, a flash of jealousy. Kurt didn't catch it, he'd already turned away. He pulled on his gauntlet, and stepped up to the boulders, a few paces away from Marle. No one called out the start of the race, they just looked at each other and began to move.
They scrambled over the boulders and attacked the cliff, somehow finding handholds and footholds in what looked like sheer rock to Fina's eyes. Kurt had predicted correctly, though: he was going to lose the race. He used his gauntlet shamelessly, hanging from its tireless grip while his other hand and both feet reached for better holds, but Marle climbed like an ordinary person would walk: sure and steady, because there was nothing worth noticing to slow her down. She rolled over the top of the cliff, turned to look down, and saw Kurt two or three body lengths below her.
"I wonder if Zenan the Great's best friend got underestimated, too?" Kurt panted, still climbing. "I know Sir Cyrus' did."
"You're comparing that brat to the founder of Guardia and the greatest knight in history?" Marle snorted. "Don't make me…"
Kurt lost his grip, and fell dangling from his gauntlet. He swung by his arm from the face of the cliff. Blood colored his tunic, not in drops or splashes but in the steady soaking of a deep wound. Marle and Zeo were yelling. Fina did not understand.