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Earth was but a memory to him now. Yet as he fell ever faster, he could think of nothing else. He had achieved so much in so little time. Now it was all over. Either the awaiting treetops or the brown dirt below would see to that. The trees stood up like a bed of nails. It would not be long now.
He knew the rebellion would live on. With their leader gone, the ugly Unknown beasts would more than likely kill each other until their numbers were insubstantial. Still tugging on the back of his mind, though, was something his brother, Francis Roddendale, had said. There was a secret army within the Unknown ranks—one that he could not control, one that was capable of destroying even him.
The trees flew up at him, nearly impaling him on their sharp tops. Branches with their strange leaves whipped at his face, leaving their needles stuck deep within his skin. The ground beneath ascended up to greet him. He shut his eyes and pulled his hands up in a vain attempt to shield his face.
A loud thud reverberated off the trees. Many cracks and crunches sounded as Jessie felt his brittle ribs break again. A thick liquid left a salty, disgusting taste in his mouth. The wind flew out of him. A large cloud of dust and dirt flew into the air. However, the ground that Jessie slammed into did not fight his descent. The ground seemed to stretch downward to accommodate his fall. The elastic ground slowed him, but it could not hold all his momentum. Fiery debris from the explosion of the ship rained down on him as the ground continued to bend down. The fiery chunks of metal tore through the elastic dirt below him like it was tissue paper. A large snap cracked through the area, and Jessie suddenly felt himself falling again. His chest collided with a hard surface, and he began sliding downward. He rolled himself over so his back was now against the sleek hard surface; he was plummeting down a very steep slide. He did not open his eyes to see in front of him, though. He could only feel the surface under him slowly begin to curve until it became gradual enough to slow him down. It was only after he felt himself slowing down that he dared to open his eyes.
He was in some sort of cave, sliding through a round passage. It was made of metal, and the light created from his special contacts shimmered off the walls magnificently. Not far in front of him was a small netted opening, an opening that led to a large domed room, a room that held a magnificent city, a magnificent city that recently had its admiral building blown in half and which large holes punched through its ceiling. Holes through which, only moments before, a large bomb capable of destroying everything inside had fallen through. Yet the city still stood, thanks to the valiant effort of the young man now sliding down the metal cavern.
* * *
The rumble of the explosion rattled even the strongest foundation of the underground base of Polidor. A large flash of white light followed by the orange glow of flames could be seen through the small holes, which Jessie had punched out of the ceiling with his Marking. Angie stared through the holes in horror. No one in the base knew that Jessie was on that ship. No one really knew what had just happened. She fell to her knees.
Jim quickly ran to her. Stef lowered her hood and stared out through the small holes in the ceiling at the quickly growing fireball in both surprise and horror. Hammel did the same.
"I think we had better move," Hammel said.
Angie looked up. The flaming, melting ship was falling right at them.
"Jim!" she screamed at him.
"Move!" Jim screamed to his watch. Suddenly, all the exit doors opened and crowds of people rushed to get out. Angie, Jim, Stef, and Hammel stayed behind, trying to get the crowd around them to safety. There wasn't much time. The ship was dropping faster every second. Panic gripped everyone as they piled the exits, clawing their way in front of other people.
Finally, the people near them finished making it through the exits. Angie left last. As she walked swiftly through the door, she slammed her hand on the rock to close it so no flames would touch the refugees. The door rumbled loudly, and Angie walked through the tunnel toward the rest of the group. As she walked, she swore she heard something following her—almost like a slug dragging itself behind her. She spun around with her gun out. As her contacts spread light through the cave behind her, she saw the bloody disfigured body of Andrew dragging himself forward with every bit of energy he had left. He looked up as he saw Angie spot him.
"You can't kill me," he said wickedly. A cocky bloody smile came over his broken face. Angie huffed and whipped herself around. She tucked her gun back into her holster and continued walking. She ignored the large thud afterward, hoping that it had been Andrew giving up. Yet this time Andrew turned around and stared at the now closed door.
* * *
Jessie slid quickly through the metal cavern. The netted opening was not far now, and there was no way the tunnel would stop him before he reached it. The net that covered the opening would not be strong enough to stop him either. He stuck his feet to the ground, but all it ended up doing was spinning him so that he was sliding headfirst. He tried to slow himself down with his hands, but the metal was so smooth that he couldn't cause any sort of friction. Quickly, he spun himself around. He looked forward to see how far away the opening was, but something even more horrifying met his eyes.
In between the netted opening and where he found himself sliding uncontrollably downward was a large, three-bladed fan. Its sharp blades cut through the air, sending small gusts of wind toward him. The gusts did nothing to slow him down, though. He heard a loud rumble echo through the cave. It sounded almost as though a door were closing. He tried to stop himself with his feet, but again he succeeded only in spinning himself around. With his head now only inches from the sharp blades, Jessie shut his eyes. The blade swished by just before his head entered, and Jessie could swear he had felt a few hairs get cut. Just after his feet passed, the second of the three blades sliced across the air. A small gust of wind pushed back on Jessie, as if it were inviting him to go back through the narrow ring again. There was not much time left to attempt to slow down; Jessie watched the opening get closer and closer. Only seconds before he flew out of the tunnel and into the dome, he could swear he heard Francis's cocky, evil voice echoing around somewhere.
"You can't kill me!" the voice said.
Jessie crashed right through the netting. He shot out of the tunnel like a sneeze from a kraggler. The net did nothing to stop his momentum, and more brown dirt flew into the air. He flew forward headfirst, turning himself slightly to make sure he would hit the ground with his back. His ribs already hurt, and this fall felt big. Landing on his stomach would only mean twice as much pain. He tensed up.
A loud thud echoed through the air. All the wind flew out from Jessie's lungs as his back slammed into the dirt below. His body did not stop, though. Like a rock being thrown onto gravel, his body bounced slightly and landed almost twenty feet from the tunnel. His torso felt broken. His back ached. His neck felt both burnt and achy. His head pounded. His arms tingled. Sweat dripped from his forehead. He rolled slightly and coughed a few times, struggling to get air back into his lungs. Each cough brought a groan from him as the pain peaked. Finally, he rolled onto his back and opened his eyes. He stared out the small holes punched through the dome, and his eyes grew wide with horror. A large ball of fire flew down at him. Jessie closed his eyes and groaned.
"Oh man," he said. "This isn't my day."
Jessie didn't see what happened after that. All he knew was that he heard a loud crunching of trees, followed by a thunderous collision as the ship crashed into the weakened roof of the base. The ship drove downward, and Jessie felt something very hard and very heavy fall on him. It was not metal but something brittle. As it slammed into his body, it burst into dust.
A chunk had fallen from the ceiling, bursting over Jessie's broken body. Tremors rattled the ground beneath him as the ship slammed through the abandoned buildings and buried itself into the base. Rocks fell onto his body, quickly covering all but his neck and head. More dirt dusted over the rock. Jessie struggled to move; but under the weight of the rocks, dirt, and debris, he could do nothing. Even if he wasn't buried under hundreds of pounds of dirt, rock, and debris, after all that happened, he was too weak and beat up to move.
Fiery sheets of metal fell from the destroyed ship and stuck into the ground just in front of him. He struggled to move, but there was no way of getting out from the pile of rocks that pinned him in place. Jessie saw a large square sheet of metal fly up into the air. Somehow, out of all the mess, between the flames and noise, Jessie could look at nothing else. He turned his head to the side as the sheet flew down, falling right at his head.
Bam! Everything went black. Jessie could feel himself start to lose consciousness. Just before he went out, though, he felt a searing hotness and heard a loud explosion as the ship let out one last roar of life.
* * *
Jessie's mind woke up before the rest of his body. His chest did not hurt, but for some reason, he knew that it wouldn't. He wanted to open up his eyes, but he knew what awaited him when he did. Slowly, he raised his hand up above his eyes. When he finally opened them, his hand blocked the bright sun that would have otherwise blinded him. He sat up feeling the dry, coarse sand fall off the back of his neck. In front of him, the lake sparkled gleefully.
"Why do I keep returning here?" Jessie asked aloud. "The statue keeps saying return when I'm ready, but even though I'm not ready, I keep coming back." He stood up and walked to the edge of the lake. The bright white light shone back at him from the bottom. It seemed so close, like he could reach his arm in and touch it. He jumped in the water. When his head was under, everything changed. The bottom was nowhere in sight. The water was much darker and colder. He swam downward, and the water grew darker and colder the further he went.
He stopped, as he usually did, not very far down. A statue of two soldiers carved out of stone was plastered against the rocky wall of the lake. The statues had old medieval armor on and held swords above their heads pointing up to the surface of the water. It was as if they were hailing the coming of Jessie as he swam down to greet them. They held a shield in front of their chests with their other hand. The soldiers were identical. Each was large and muscular, but the helmet hid their faces. Just above the statues was a large, flat piece of rock that looked like a plaque. On the rock words were scratched. In the past, the words had been a mystery to Jessie. They had changed on him when he wasn't looking. They toyed with his mind and gave him riddles to think about. Most importantly, though, they told him to return there when he was ready.
Now that he had his Marking, was he ready?
He swam eagerly to the statue, wondering what message his father had left for him now. What he saw disappointed him.
The time has come for your quest to begin. You must go to the City of the Elders to learn more. Return here when you are ready.
Jessie's shoulders slumped even underwater. It was a long trip back to the surface. The current fought him on his way back up, and he knew he did not have very much time left. However, the surprises were not ready to end.
"Hey there, Heat-man!" said a man sitting on the beach. His appearance was so vividly familiar. He held a small sack hanging on his back and wore a torn jacket over his dirty, ripped clothes. His head was bald, save for a horseshoe around the back of his head of long messy gray hair. His light blue eyes sparkled as brightly as the lake before him.
"Patch?" Jessie asked.
Patch smiled brightly. "You remembered."
"What are you doing here?" Jessie asked, moving quickly to the shore.
"Oh, I'm just wandering, looking for a mountain to climb maybe."
Jessie climbed out of the water. "There aren't any mountains around here."
"Not yet at least. Someday, though, who knows?"
"You plan to wait here until a mountain grows?"
Patch smiled. "Now, that would be silly, wouldn't it? No. I reckon I should move on. This is a beautiful place, though. Really clears your head."
"This place?" Jessie asked, remembering that this place so far had only brought him frustration.
"Yep," answered Patch, adjusting the sack on his back.
"This place is a mystery to me. I keep coming here, even though I'm not ready."
Patch simply nodded. "I think that is why it clears your head."
They paused. Neither said anything for a few moments. They stood staring down into the lake.
"I can't reach it," Jessie finally said.
"I dive down, but the current pushes me back up."
"Oh. A barrier," Patch said. "I've never seen that stop you before."
"It hasn't stopped me before."
"So why does it stop you now?"
"I don't know."
"Hmmm. I guess that's something to think about."
"I guess," Jessie agreed. Again, silence.
"What is it that you're looking for?"
"The same thing everyone looks for."
Patch only smiled. He looked up into the sky. "You hear that?"
Jessie listened intently but heard nothing but birds chirping in the distance. "Hear what?"
"Yeah, I hear them." Jessie picked up a pebble and threw it into the lake.
"They tell stories, you know."
"What story do they tell?" Jessie asked.
"I don't have a story."
"Everyone has a story."
"Why don't they tell you your story then?"
"What fun is it to know my own destiny?" Patch answered.
Jessie paused. "So how does it end?"
"How does what end?"
"Do you really want to know?"
"Well, Heat-man, I can't tell you."
"Because they don't know the end."
"I want to know."
"Then you and I are on the same adventure."
"I suppose so," Jessie said. He laid back and closed his eyes.
"Well, I have an adventure to get back to, and you have a quest to begin. I think we should both be moving on now."
"Yeah," Jessie said, his eyes still closed. A very new scent filled his nose. It smelled just like ...
"Picked these up just for you," Patch said, dropping a small plastic bag next to Jessie's head. "Hope you like 'em. They're fresh."
"Bye, Heat-man," Patch's distant voice rang back.
Jessie could hardly hear Patch; his voice seemed far away. The lake seemed far away. The feel of the wind against his cheek slowly weakened and died away. A new heavier feeling pressed there instead. Hard. Cold. Metal.
The smell never left.
Blackness replaced the redness behind his eyelids as the sun slowly faded away to nothing. Pressure covered his body. His legs would not lift. His arm could not move. His hand was the only part of him that could even wiggle. It alone stuck out from the rock, dirt, and debris from the ship that had crashed down upon him. He did not open his eyes, but he remained awake. He could still smell that sweet smell. Around him, the air was thick with a pink smoke. He breathed in deeply, warming himself with the unmistakable smell of fresh strawberries and trying as hard as he could to ignore the lingering pain in his ribs.
Excerpted from THE LAST HOPE FOR PEACE by Joshua E. Starr Copyright © 2012 by Joshua E. Starr. Excerpted by permission of Trafford Publishing. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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