Connie needed to stay calm. Despite being perched on an uneven and rapidly fracturing sheet of glass the size of a parking lot, she had to show confidence and hide any traces of the terror that was pulsing through her fingertips. Watching one particular crack as it spread made that a trifle difficult though.
The crack hadn’t been there when she’d set out across the glass sheet. Without it she’d wagered on there being about a 80% chance she and the people following her would make it across the transparent ground that served as the last path from the jail cells they’d been condemned to rot in and the portal that would take them away from the ones who enslaved them. The farther the crack spread though, the lower she had to lower those odds, until it looked like they were going to reach the single digits.
“We’ve got to turn back,” Horold said. He’d was the oldest of the prisoners, and had survived the work pits by playing it as safe as he could. Connie knew he’d only come along on the escape because his captors were going to put them all to death anyways.
“It’s too late,” Pynni, the youngest of the prisoners said. She’d been the first to raise her voice in support of Connie’s plan when she explained it to the prisoners. It wasn’t a just fear of her jailers that convinced her to take Connie’s side. Pynni had been able to make most of Connie’s arguments for her because she’d seen all the signs that confirmed the change in the jailer’s agenda.
“No, we can make it!” Horold said, his breathing short and ragged with fear.
Behind them, close to the access duct they’d managed to sneak out of, a piece of the glass flooring let loose with a courage sheering crack. Everyone in the escape party froze and watched the jagged fragment plummet into the cloud layer below the floating city.
Rather than being swallowed by the thick gases in the clouds, the fragment burst aflame as it touched them, setting off a firestorm and opening a hole that showed the distant ground, miles below them.
As the fragment fell, burning through the sky, Connie had a vision of her party’s probable fate.
If she hadn’t been leading them.
“No going back now,” she said, her fear flipping to the perverse resolve she often felt when faced with a truly challenging obstacle. “Don’t worry though. We’ve got this.”
The crack that had been spreading towards her seemed to take issue with that statement, accelerating at a rate that told her there wasn’t any chance everyone would make it to the next solid section before the one they were on detached.
“Horold, time’s up, fast forward, get your work unit to the portal. Best speed,” Connie said as she began taking stock of the pylons and support structures that dotted the underside of the Celestial City of the Pure Ones.
“But, that’ll make everything collapse faster!” Horold said, looking at the other work crews that were following them.
“Yep. Got it covered. Move now,” Connie said.
To his credit, despite his heart pounding so hard that Connie was pretty sure she could hear it across the dozen feet that separated them, Horold dug deep and found the courage he needed. With a nod, he got up and waved his crew to follow.
Their flight alarmed the rest of Connie’s followers, but the smile she flashed them kept them from panicking or revolting.
“Pynni, we’re taking the rest of the crew and heading for the edge of the Under Shield,” Connie said, gesturing towards to the edge of the glass parking that acted as part of the floating city’s levitation mechanism.
“That part’s definitely going to fall off,” Pynni said. “And it’s the opposite direction from that very safe looking portal.”
“I know,” Connie said.
“Ok,” Pynni said and gestured for the other half of the prisoners to follow them.
Connie knew she didn’t deserve that sort of trust. She’d known Pynni for all of a few hours. That was hardly enough time to form the sort of bond that would support requests to rush towards certain doom. Pynni wasn’t wrong to put her faith in Connie though, Connie did have a plan to save everyone, and contingencies for when that plan inevitably failed, also she was really good at making stuff up on the spur of the moment, but Pynni’s trust still felt more a result of Pynni’s intelligence and perceptiveness than any special way with people Connie had.
That had been the part of the plan that Connie had objected to the most strongly. The Celestial City of the Pure Ones had appeared on the Second Chance Club’s radar after the Ghost of Christmas Future that Anna, Tam, and Val rescued let them know about the then-current most likely future. According to the Ghost, who used simple, direct language instead of the cryptic and vague nonsense she was supposed to use to communicate about upcoming events, the Pure Ones intended to purge the Earth of its corruption before anything could spread across the realms to their world.
Their plan, as explained by the Ghost, was to convert their prisoners into biological plague bombs, and then detonate them at key positions around the Earth to ensure a complete collapse of the Earth’s biosphere.
By the time Connie and the rest had started planning it was too late to prevent the prisoners from undergoing the procedure. That had left them with two unpleasant alternatives.
The first plan was, as Connie understood it, to slam the doors between Earth and the Pure One’s realm shut. Between Tam, Sarah, James and the growing army of experienced and fledgling spell casters they had as back up, the Club had been quite certain they could hold any portals between the two worlds closed. Even new ones the Pure Ones might try to open.
In that sense the plan was a solid one. It guaranteed the survival of everyone on Earth.
It had been unanimously voted down though.
Closing the door meant that the prisoners would eventually detonate on the Pure One’s world. Even with the assumption that the Pure One’s could safely isolate the prisoners and somehow destroy a legion of biological weapons that were meant to survive every conceivable defense the Earth could mount against them, that still meant that all of the prisoners would die.
From what the Club could find of the Pure One’s legal codes, execution level offenses were reserved for two types of crime; heresy (as defined by whoever was currently in charge of the central authority) and treason (defined as any crime against anyone above a certain level in the hierarchy).
That left the club with the second plan. Someone had to rescue the prisoners, while the rest of the Club found a friendly realm with medical tech or magics beyond the level the Pure Ones had achieved.
Connie hadn’t felt great about taking either job. While the exploration aspect of finding and navigating a new realm was appealing, she’d doubted she was the one who was best suited to talking alien beings into undertaking an urgent and incredibly dangerous task.
Sarah had pointed out that convincing a bunch of prisoners to escape on nothing more than an ephemeral promise of rescue and transport to a magical fairytale land wasn’t likely to be any easier. Connie knew she was right, and had wished there was someone else who could handle all of the tasks, but with the time limits they had to work under that simply hadn’t been an option.
And so she’d stepped forward and called dibs on the rescue.
Breaking into the prison had been easy. Just being an Earthling had been enough to get her arrested. Punching a Cardinal in the sensitive bits had, strictly speaking, been unnecessary, but given what it did for Connie’s mood, she felt it was worth the extra bruises she’d earned.
Apart from the brutal treatment by the guards, Connie’s next problem was finding the prisoners who’d been converted into bio-bombs. For obvious reasons, they hadn’t stuck her in the same cells as their apocalypse weapons. In fact, they’d placed her on the exact opposite side of the maximum security detention compound. It had been exactly the right thing to do on their part. A wise course of action.
Of course a much wiser course of action would had been to avoid drawing Connie and the rest of the Club’s ire in the first place.
Connie wasn’t the existential horror of a combat monster that Val and Jen were. She hadn’t trained herself to carry the sort of enchantments that could allow her to beat an actual deity senseless with her bare hands. From the point of the view of the guards in the Pure Ones prison though, the difference was difficult to distinguish.
For most of the guards their day had begun as a tense one. With the leadership’s plans so close to fruition, they’d been on high alert, armed and ready for any sort of trouble, but otherwise sticking to their normal schedule and procedures.
Then Connie got loose.
There’s a moment in many horror movies where the hapless victim is forced to wander into an area that should be all rights be completely safe and yet they’re terrified because they just don’t know where the monster is. Inevitably, no matter how alert they are, and no matter which shadows and noises they jump at, they’re never quite ready for the monster when it shows up from the one spot they didn’t think to check.
That was how the guards of the Pure Ones jail spent their day.
Connie didn’t bother killing them. She just made them disappear. Occasionally with a brief, truncated scream to mark their passing.
The prison wasn’t holding her in, it was preventing anyone from escaping her.
In the panic that realization bred among the guards, Connie slipped into the highest security area and found roughly ten times as many prisoners-turned-bio-bombs than she’d expected to need to rescue.
That had been the first thing that put the impossible challenge smile on her face.
Breaking them out had been difficult – the guards in that particular section had been selected for both exceptional skill and courage. They hadn’t been intended to fight both Connie and the prisoners though, so that went rather poorly for them.
Getting the prisoners on her side had been simpler than she’d expected, largely because of Pynni’s support, and from there it had just taken a little bit of sabotage to clear a path back to the hidden portal that waited to rescue all of them.
That the sabotage had grown somewhat beyond what Connie intended wasn’t her fault. She was willing to swear to that. Anyone who stored one of their primary weapon’s caches in a room adjacent to their central power generators, regardless of how thick the walls were, deserved what they got when the later of the two rooms experienced a minor little problem and an explosion or three.
The resulting destruction had opened the doors that Connie needed to pass through. It had also shattered the glass Under Shield the city relied on and probably doomed it to an eventual crash. The Pure Ones had enough escape craft to survive that, but losing an entire city would be an economic blow they weren’t going to forget any time soon.
As the cracks continued to spread and multiply through the Under Shield, Connie knew she wasn’t going to need to worry about the new nation of enemies she’d made if her plan didn’t work. She considered a few extra contingencies but just as she reached the edge of the glass plate, she heard the ping in her earbud of the communication link with the rest of the Club coming online.
“How’s it going there?” Sarah asked. “We’ve got the Telidees Physicians Guild on tap to handle the patients.”
“Good. I’ve got them ready for transport now,” Connie said. “It looks like the first batch is at the portal and starting to pass through.”
“Wow, yeah, good timing, I see them now,” Sarah said. “But there’s about twice as many as we’d expected.”
“Yeah, there’s another eight times more than that with me,” Connie said.
“Where are you?” Sarah asked.
“About to dive into to incendiary clouds,” Connie said. “Remember the Sunlost Aerie?”
“Wait? Incendiary clouds? What happened?” Sarah asked.
“No time. Call the gryphons. I need them. Now!” Connie said.
Pynni looked at her hopefully as the glass behind them shattered like a wave, the Under Shield losing the last of its cohesion.
“Jump!” Connie said, diving off the edge of the glass as a wave of prisoners poured off into freefall behind her.
The clouds weren’t as far below them as she’d hoped.
It was going to be a short trip to a fairly spectacular end unless…
Portals began to open in the sky below them.
Surging through the rifts in space, a flight of a hundred creatures, each larger than the biggest horse flew, carried on wings of sky blue feathers.
“You could have given us just a little more notice,” Skydancer, Connie’s best friend among the gryphons, said as the flight gracefully snagged each of the falling prisoners from the air and carried them away to safety.