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Rise from the Ashes: A Story of the Change

Alternate History/Fiction


a part of Rise from the Ashes: A Story of the Change, by Ragnarök.


Ragnarök holds sovereignty over Alternate History/Fiction, giving them the ability to make limited changes.

453 readers have been here.

Copyright: The creator of this roleplay has attributed some or all of its content to the following sources:

the change series by sm. stirling -


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Alternate History/Fiction is a part of Rise from the Ashes: A Story of the Change.

3 Characters Here

Dane Ledsham [3] The ruthless and uncomprimising Lord Commander of Sacramento
The Reverend Marcus Jones [0] The Inspirational Preacher from North Vegas
Katie Capps [0] Las Vegas Proper's Premiere Madam & Spymaster

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Character Portrait: Dane Ledsham
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“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear, is fear of the unknown.” - H.P. Lovecraft

Bakersfield, California Catholics Union
Change Year 10

“God is with us!” The cry swept through the darkened streets of Bakersfield as Priests hurried through the semi-darkness, blazing torches in hand. The clutched bibles to their chests and continued the cry that seemed to echo from every corner.

“Why do they have to kept shouting it?” The question came from a young man with a scarred face and keen eyes. He was watching a priest hurry past below, the phrase ringing from his lips again like clockwork. “Surely if god is with us we don’t have to keep reminding him.”

“Fucked if I know.” Responded a second man who was seated on a barrel of pitch, slowly honing the edge of his sword with a sharpening stone. “Priests have to be useful somehow, better they use their voices here than moaning over the head of some choir boy.”

A chuckle ran through the seated soldiers, ten of them in all. The main wall that fronted into the desert, and provided the frontal defence for the Catholic Stronghold of Bakersfield, was studded with a dozen towers. Each was thirty feet by thirty feet and manned by ten men. These men, a mix of white, Latino and Philippino descent, were the bulwark against the chaos that threatened to overwhelm the town below. They were hard men, toughened by ten years of fighting since the world they knew had come to a crashing halt, and all had killed in the name of their God and to protect those they loved.

“Where are the bastards…” Muttered one as he glanced over the wall into the darkness that was quickly descending over the desert and newly ploughed fields that bordered the banks of the river in both directions.

“To the south I think.” This was from the man who was sharpening his blade, it was clear by the respect that the others showed him that he was in charge of this group. “There are still bridges down there and we know that our picket line was thrown back yesterday.”

“Why’re they even down here? I thought we’d be fighting Mormons. I almost enjoy killing those soft skinned heathens.”

“I don’t know.” That simple answer brought silence to the group as they looked up at him.

“A few months ago we had word that they were busy fighting cannibal and bandit bands that were being driven south by the survivors in Oregon but they must have settled that problem and decided to make a move south. We happen to be the only stronghold in the south that straddles the main highways. If they take us, they control the southern trade routes.”

Their thoughts were interrupted by the sound of a heavy gong ringing from a nearby tower and they leapt to the battlements, staring eagerly into the darkness, all movement in the streets below stopped, even the priests fell silent as all faces towards the gatehouse.

“They’re here…” Muttered the leader. The others strained, peering into the gloom, trying to make out what he could see that they could not.

“How do you know?” Asked one of the younger men. He was new to the garrison, having joined them the month before from San Diego.

As if in answer to his question a long, low, mournful howl rolled through the night from somewhere out in the desert. It was followed by another, and then another, until all the night seemed to be filled with the howls, yips, and cries of a legion of hells hounds.

“Sweet Jesus.” Whispered one man as he crossed himself, others followed suit. “What are they?”

“The Hounds of Sacramento.” The voce startled them and they turned to find one of the elder priests standing behind them clutching a cross to his chest as he stared over their heads. “They have come to do the devils work.”

“Father?” The word was a question.

“The Lord-Commander of Sacramento is a clever man for a heathen and early in the change he began this tactic of physiological warfare using hounds of many types. Now however they have begun to work solely with an equally cunning and cruel breed, I think they are Rhodesian Ridgebacks. Fast, strong, agile, and easy to train for combat.”

The howling suddenly ended, so abruptly that it was if someone had flipped a switch and complete silence fell over the desert again.

“And so it begins.” Said the Priest as pin pricks of light suddenly appeared all across the desert in front of them. Then a sort heavy thuds followed by a swishing sound as the points of fire began to grow in size.

“Artillery!” Screamed a voice down the line and everyone ducked as the first of the flaming objects rose high in the air and then began to fall towards them.

“Oh my god…” The group drew a collective breath as the object fell towards them. There was no mistaking its shape. The flaming object was a man.

* * * * * * *

Dawn rose clear and cloudless the next morning, the pure blue sky smeared with the smoke that rose slowly from Bakersfield. It was a vastly town than the one which had bid goodnight to the sun the day before. The front gates sat open, a slew of bodies crumpled in the dirt just inside the archway showed where a vicious close quarters fight had taken place.

The big Church on the edge of the bluff was almost completely consumed by fire now and a few flames licked out of the ruins where the roof had finally collapsed inwards. Here, at the base of the steps, the bodies were thickest and the square that had once boasted white marble tiles and a beautiful fountain, was stained with blood.

The Lord-Commander of Sacramento strode through the streets as the first rays of sun touched the blood stained streets his men had taken in the wee hours of the morning.

Soldiers nodded at him, grinning as he passed and he returned the greetings with a hearty “Well done” and more than a few bone-crushing hugs when he recognized a soldier he knew well.

He path led him down the main street of the town and his experienced eye took in the dead defenders where they had each tried to protect their own individual homes. His attack had driven them from the walls not by sheer force but by cunning. It was going to go down into the books as one of the best ways to take a city defended by a river.

As his forces had been deploying to the forefront of the city and marching from the south, an elite unit, the Pathfinders, had come from the north by way of the river. While the hounds sent up their great racket and the catapults had returned the towns dead pickets the waterborne soldiers had slipped ashore. They had taken the lower landing and wharf in a mater of minutes. They had “borrowed” their dead enemies uniforms and returned to their posts.

With more flaming bodies on the way, soldiers from the main army had circled the town and, using farmers paths to the water, they had come to the lower landing. Once again stealth proved crucial as the Pathfinders had gone ahead of them, slaughtering the guards they encountered until they reached the main town. The Rivergate, as it was called, had fallen in a few short minutes of fighting. It could not be helped that the rest of the garrison had noticed but then the Pathfinders had used their last ploy. A number of women in their ranks donned typical peasant robes common in Bakersfield and ran screaming through the streets, crying out that the enemy was behind them and the town was lost.

It created enough confusion and brought fear to the men who were to guard the wall and as the main army advanced they abandoned their posts to defend their loved ones. The rest, as they say, is history.

“My Lord-Commander.” A Captain saluted with his sword as he approached the main square. “We have rounded up the survivors and gathered them in the central plaza.”

“Thank you Captain. See to the defences. We don’t want to be caught napping.”

“Yes my lord.” The horseman turned his horse and spurred away towards the gatehouse that now flew the red and gold banner of Sacramento.

The Lord-Commander turned his attention to the plaza that now stretched before him. It was large, even by post-Change standards and he had to admit to being impressed. There were maybe a dozen plazas larger in all of Sacramento.

On one side, smoke curling from its ruin was the Church. The other three sides were ringed with shops and stalls for the Bakersfield market that was so well known in the south. It was the trading hub and held a weekly market that had made it a very wealthy town.

Now however the plaza was filled with sobbing women and children and surely looking men, all of them, save the children, on their knees with their hands bound behind their backs. Around them, strangely out of place in their desert camouflage, stood the victors of the nights action. They began to cheer as he appeared in the plaza, the captives wept openly. It was going to be a very good day.

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Character Portrait: Aves Beckett
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“In the attitude of silence the soul finds the path in an clearer light, and what is elusive and deceptive resolves itself into crystal clearness. Our life is a long and arduous quest after Truth.” - Mahatma Gandhi

Califorrnia Highway 58, East of Bakersfield
Change Year 10

The sand-and-black horse clopped along the flat stone rock formation making up a significant portion of the plateau upon which the caravan had modestly camped itself. The setting sun cast a lavender shadow across the vast burnt desert and the former Sequoia National Park as it crept closer to the horizon. The still air offered no noise at all except for the beast's running clacks, shooting through the air like cracks of a whip. Onward it rode until it reached the end of the formation—a clean cliff just off of Highway 58, overlooking the valley, first with the old city of Bakersfield as the first visible landmark.

The horse finally stopped near the edge of the cliff, not far from another horse tied to an old metal bench miraculously still in the area. The rider confidently swung legs down to the ground after tying the second horse securely to the other side of the heavy bench, and began to examine the area.

"Aves." The tall figure's voice was high-pitched, but it meant business. "Aves, you're going to have to come back to camp. Right now." Silence. The woman didn't roll her eyes or huff in exasperation; instead, she continued onward, unfazed, until she stopped near a cluster of rocks that looked a little familiar. "Aves, we made a deal."

A worn black Stetson peered out from behind the stacked stones. A pair of tired brown eyes stared back at the woman from under the brim, surrounded by a mane of long brown hair. "You had to say that, didn't you, Clarissa?" she sighed, then reached out her hands to push herself up from the ground. She was much smaller than the other woman, even with a pair of long-loved leather boots propping her up just marginally. She dusted off her long, oversized off-white cotton wrap and dark green dress and looked out over the valley. "I had a feeling you'd find me here if you really needed me."

"Well, we've actually needed you in the last hour," the woman spelled out with her fingers, starting to step backwards toward the two horses. Her crystal-blue eyes were clouded with a held-back concern. "We've been hearing a few things. We need to get going. As soon as possible."

"Like what?" Aves asked calmly, bending back toward the rocks to pluck up her Martin. She stepped quickly to catch up to the other woman. "And from who?"

"Gary was out today," the tall woman started as she and the far-shorter brunette sauntered toward the pair of horses tied to the old bench, "and he said he'd been hearing that there was a problem in Bakersfield."

"Oh, the Catholics moving in on the Mormons?" Aves responded, her eyes blinking in confusion. "But we knew that already. That's been going on a while."

"No, this is about Sacramento," Clarissa said a little rushedly as she lengthened her stride in order to walk faster, "they're everywhere from the northern side. They're here."

"Sacramento?" Aves repeated. She looked out over the valley, at what had seemed like a busy Bakersfield, not unlike any other time she'd seen it from this spot before. She looked back to the other woman. "Are you sure about that? You really think they'd go this far south for a city like Bakersfield?"

"No, I'm not here to think about any of this stuff," Clarissa returned impatiently, "but I am here to come get you. We need to go."

The two women reached the horses and began to untie the long loops of rope attaching them to the old bench. "All right," Aves answered, furrowing her eyebrows a little as she pulled a cover for her guitar from a pack situated on her horse, "all right, I'll head back. You're not usually like this."

"Well, it's not every day that you hear that some army from Sacramento is heading into the neighborhood," Clarissa skittered nervously. She stepped to Aves to help cover the guitar, fully intending to rush her along. "I'm sorry, but we just need to go, and now, and-"

"It's all right," Aves interrupted neutrally, slinging the guitar across her back via a sturdy strap and then hoisting herself up onto the saddle by driving a foot into a stirrup and sliding a leg over the seat, smoothing her long skirt to keep it from becoming tangled. "We'll go back now."

# # #

"What took you so long?" the voice boomed out from a tent as the two women finally hitched their horses to one of the heavy wagons on the edge of the camp.

"I was only gone about twenty minutes," Clarissa replied glumly, sighing and slumping her shoulders frustratedly as she slunk away moodily. "See you later."

Aves and the tall man watched the woman wander off. "You really shouldn't talk to her like that," Aves sighed flatly. "That's no way to get her to do something for you."

"This is more important," Gary snapped back. He pointed out over the valley toward the city as he began to walk toward the center of the encampment. "It's sundown and they're supposed to attack down there. There's no way in hell we're going to the market tomorrow, and there's no way we can leave tonight."

"No fires tonight," Aves said definitively, adjusting the guitar still slung across her back along with the small pack she took from her saddle. "We don't need to draw attention to ourselves. I'd rather get a little cold than even a little destroyed. And I'm not sure about the market yet."

"You're kidding," Gary stressed loudly, looking to Aves with a bewildered expression on his normally-stony face. "We're not going in there."

"We don't know that yet." Aves continued to walk along, her expression not wavering or changing in the slightest. "We'll decide in the morning."

Gary gritted his teeth and continued to walk alongside the small woman. "I'm going to make it clear that I don't agree with you on this," he said darkly.

Aves rolled her eyes. "There's nothing to disagree on yet." She looked off to her right at a couple of younger crew, nervously watching the horizon along. The whole camp seemed to be on a tense hold. "Please let anyone with a tent know that fires aren't permitted out in the open tonight, and that anyone cooking needs to wrap it up fast," she instructed politely. The two nodded and set off to perform the task, not eager to incur the wrath of an apparently-temperamental Gary. Aves turned back to him. "We'll stay put tonight and see what happens in the morning. Maybe they need supplies. And we're here to trade. Not make enemies."

Gary opened his mouth to say something, then a shout pierced the air from the other side of the camp. "Look! Look!"

The entire crew, about 20, all quieted and watched as the desert came alive. What seemed like a thousand small flickers of light from their distance slowly careened high into the air, then down into the city more speedily, flames trailing behind ominously.

In all these years spent traveling together, they'd never before seen anything like this.

"Fires, NOW!" Aves barked as loud as she could. Half of the camp scrambled to put out any campfires that may have been flickering brightly enough for anyone in the valley to see and trace. She held her hand in the air as she began to look aroud to spot any other possible sign of their existence that could be seen from afar. They were obviously not the focus of this attack, but she wasn't about to take any chances. "Everyone stay calm. We're planting here for the night and making the decision on the next move in the morning."

Not even Gary said anything.

# # #

"Boy, the Council is going to be pissed about this," Gary ruffed as he handed mugs of coffee to both Aves and Clarissa. The camp was gathered together for breakfast, happy to finally make fires to cook warm food and brew coffee and tea after a long, cold night with the sounds of a terrible battle raging below their resting place. Hardly anyone slept, and no one was sorry to see the sun come up as they mingled about on lawn chairs or long benches. "Bakersfield is one of our best trading spots."

"Like they wouldn't take advantage of something that they think they can get control of," Aves reminded Gary sarcastically, nodding a thank-you as she took the handle of her mug. "That's just the way it is, you know."

Clarissa smiled at Gary and then stared into her mug nervously for several seconds, then look at Aves with a curious expression. "I wonder what Klaus is going to think about this." She shrugged her shoulders and blew some of the rising steam off of her hot beverage. "Or Giuseppe."

Aves bristled visibly, then relaxed. "I don't care what they think," she snipped quietly, then shook her head as she glanced toward the smoke rising from the destroyed city. She continued to stand tensely. "Do we know how it's going down there?"

"Couple scouts said they heard the city surrendered officially," Gary acknowledged as he set himself next to Clarissa and took a long sip of his coffee. "Didn't take all that long."

"It felt like forever," Clarissa chirped with a playfully-drawn expression on her face as she scooped her spoon through her oatmeal, kicking her boots up on a chair in front of her. "But, yeah, I timed it. Not even eight hours until it got real quiet."

"I heard also the Lord-Commander was heading into the streets," Gary added as he lifted a hand to the back of his head. "This wasn't just some argument over sheep. This was a deliberate engagement."

Aves nodded, her eyes bright, following along and imagining the possibilities in her head. There had to be a reason for them to be so far south. Her caravans had ventured farther north near Sacramento before, respectfully meandering along the supposed borders of their territory before being permitted inside to trade with those who lived there. She'd not been far into the territory or seen the city, but she understood it to be a masterpiece rivaling Las Vegas, with thoughtful architecture that exhibited an appreciation of historical aesthetic. It was a practice of hers to not allow their caravans too far into territories where force was known to be the rule of thumb. At least, not when they hadn't received the explicit invitation to. Aves held her warm mug in her cold hands as she paced toward the edge of the gathering, blinking outward at the view of the city in its aftermath. These invaders were truly a force in and of themselves, no doubt about it. Besides Las Vegas, this had been the largest city in the inland region that still held itself together decently enough. Bakersfield provided much of their business and had a strong supply of food; the agricultural tradition continued to thrive in the Central Valley, despite the lack of electricity. It was easy to lament the sudden state of flux regarding whether or not this crucial stop on their routes would be defunct or not. But, for now, they had to make the best of it. She stretched her shoulders and looked back at the caravan crew gathered. She wondered whether they'd be amenable to exchanging goods, especially medical supplies, with the victors. The need would certainly be strong, that was for certain. But would they go for it? There had to be some way.

And then it occurred to her.

She sighed and turned back around to the group. She finished her coffee as she walked back to Gary, Clarissa, and a few others. "We're going to exchange with the army," she asserted nonchalantly as she set herself into an empty lawn chair. Anyone within earshot immediately stopped talking and stared at her. "We've got business to do. If there's a problem, we'll turn back around."

"I don't like this," Gary immediately countered, his voice strained with impatience.

Aves nodded, then looked up at the sky in an effort to avoid making eye contact. "That's why I'll go ahead to speak with them first. Alone."

A pause.

"I can't let you do that, Aves," Gary stated finitely. "Klaus would have my head on a stick."

"You know that's not true." She got up from her chair and made for her tent. "If I'm not back in three days, head back without me."

"Goddammit. You're putting me in a bad spot, Beckett!" Gary retorted. Aves continued on, apparently unfazed. "I do not want to deal with the shit he's going to give me about this!" Still no response. "Do you want to get slaughtered like a pig?!"

Clarissa shot the fuming man a quick, darting glare, then rose from her chair and followed after the stubborn woman as other members of the camp stared on quietly. "Aves!" she called out as she walked quickly, not to seem rushed but not to look careless either, toward her tent. She opened the front flap and poked her scarf-covered head inside, and peered around until her eyes adjusted and she saw the younger woman on her knees on the floor, packing her trunk. "Can't we talk about this a little more?"

"No, Clar, we can't," Aves sighed tightly. "I'm doing this. You can't talk me out of it."

The taller woman knew when to hold her tongue after almost ten years of being close to the pint-sized, driven Aves. Or "Avey," as she affectionately called her. Or "Becks," as Giuseppe liked to say. Or "Mademoiselle," as Klaus liked to tease loudly in a high-pitched voice much to Aves' bemusement. Or, he used to do that. Not anymore. Not after the previous year. Clarissa had watched the feisty, sharp teenager grow into a composed, decisive woman, incapable of taking anyone else's shit yet perfectly capable of dishing it back. And over the years she'd watched her close herself off more and more. Especially after that previous year. "I guess this is a bad time to say that I'm worried about you."

Aves stopped, staring down at her hands as they nudged a couple of books around in the large wooden trunk. She must have intended for it to get loaded up on the wagon if she didn't come back. It was clear from the sudden look of recognition in her eyes that she knew exactly what was on Clarissa's mind. She reached her hands up, her wrap sleeves running along the varnish of the pretty exterior as she shut the lid of the trunk. She turned to Clarissa and nodded. "It is. We can talk about it later. Please. Just do what I say."

Clarissa knew when it was time to walk away. She'd always been good at reading people's moods. Perhaps not understanding them fully, but knowing when to just back off? This was one of those times. But not quite yet. She took a deep breath and bent down to the younger woman, extending her long arms to wrap around her in a loose, heartened embrace. "Take care of yourself."

Aves sat up straight and rigid for several seconds, but finally let go of her standoffishness as she reached up two small hands to hold onto Clarissa's forearms, and leaned her head into the crook of the woman's elbow. She sighed deeply. "You too."

# # #

Aves felt relieved when she could get away from the city, and even more relieved when she could get away from the camp.
She felt remorse for being so short with Clarissa, who had turned out to be the most reliable of any member of Las Vegas society since The Change occurred. To be on the way to Bakersfield to authorize trade with winning invaders was at once a bit of a silly thrill and formed a deadly pit in her stomach at the same time. She didn't need much; it wasn't like she took much on the road, anyhow. A small pack of clothes, a few skeins of water, and her guitar suited her just fine.

Ten years prior, Aves would have never pictured herself as living in a desert. She'd hoped for something else entirely. Not the D.C.-bound life her family had constantly envisioned for her. In her 19-year old naïveté she pictured herself as a musician in routine daydreaming. That much had come true. She didn't feel as though she'd been much of one before The Change, but now it felt to her as though that Martin stuck to her back felt like another arm, an extension of her being. Why bother with words when there was music, instead? Not that she didn't feel like her other instruments back at the camp or back home in Las Vegas weren't worthwhile or useful--but the Martin certainly was.

An outpost up ahead. Aves adjusted the brown cowl around her hair and adjusted her dark face mask, the Las Vegas emblem crudely stitched in worn red thread on the front of it. No use in hiding her identity. If fate wanted to send her to heaven, hell, or down somesuch mythological river, or up in the clouds, or to just see her dead in the desert with no destination for an evaporating spirit, then it would choose to do so. That pang of remorse again. Clarissa's face popped into her mind again, as though telling her to turn back. To reconsider. And it was only right to think those thoughts. Riding to the city was dangerous. Not only that, but potentially suicidal.

But trade wasn't the top priority. Not at all.

Her conscience tried to intervene, suddenly forcing herself to ask herself again if this was worth it. If it would work. She pursed her lip concentratedly and reminded herself that her actions would have consequences, no matter what.


And then it struck her like a bolt of lightning.

I am the consequence of others' actions.

She rode onward.

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“Anything worth having is worth fighting for.” - Unknown

Bakersfield, Sacramento
Change Year 10

The plaza had fallen silent as the Lord-Commander climbed onto the back of his horse so he could better address the assembled captives and his own victorious soldiers. His armour, like that of his men, seemed to gleam a dull bronze colour, the red cloak about his shoulders swirling with his movements. Soldiers stood about the edge of the plaza, his regular troops dressed like himself, the elite pathfinders clad in desert camouflage.

"Men and women of Sacramento! We have ourselves a victory!" He punched his fist into the air and a roar went up from the surrounding soldiers. Shields fronted in bronze and emblazoned with a red sun pierced by a spear flashed in the sunlight as they were punched into the sky and orange banners with the same sun flew in the wind that tugged at all those standing in the plaza.

"It's been a long hard march and a short but bitter fight. We are at the extreme edge of the Cities borders and have brought this town, the most important town in all of southern California under our control, for that I salute you!" More cheers and now weapons were slammed against shields. The hounds present howled their approval and the captives shrank away from the reddish beasts.

"Now we make a choice, what do we do with this lot?" He waved a hand over the captives who had stayed silent. Some cried, most sat in quiet disbelief that their city could have fallen so easily. Not a priest was to be seen amongst them, all had either been in the church when it burned, or been thrown into the blaze by the victors. Everyone knew that priests spread disease, both morally and physically.

Numerous shouts came from every quarter on what was to be done, many of them less than pleasant and those who had already suffered some of the fates suggested clutched their tattered clothes about them and shrank away from the laughing soldiers.

The Lord-Commander held up his hand and an immediate silence fell over the plaza again save for the whimpering of the captives and the screams of terrified babies, their mothers trying to shush them as quickly as possible. For a long moment he looked over the assembled captives, most of them women and children, perhaps five hundred had died in the fighting. He caught a few gazes here and there that were quickly turned away but most avoided his gaze.

"Listen up citizens of Bakersfield!" His voice boomed over the plaza, rising even above the sound of the crackling timbers in the ruined church.

"Sacramento is not a discriminator of sex, religion, or any personal beliefs. As you may have noticed," He waved his hand at the town around them. "The majority of the town is still in one piece and homes have not been looted. You have two choices." He held up two fingers, ticking off their options slowly and clearly for all to hear.

"One. Swear fealty to the Lord-Marshal and return to your lives. You will be allowed to retain your personal property. Your faith we will not challenge but neither will we tolerate sedition. Many of you will be resettled north of here so that you cannot cause trouble for us so close to the CCU. The land will be granted to you by the Lord-Marshall, of equal value to what you leave behind here." That caused a small stir in the crowd and more than a few exclamations of surprise.

The second finger fell. "Two. You can be stubborn and insist on remaining loyal to the CCU. If you do, your property and everything you own is forfeit, including your bodies. You will be sold into slavery, if you cannot work, you will be killed. Those who wish to follow this path will stay where they are, those who wish to live as free men, stand up. You have minutes to make your decision."

He turned his back on the square that suddenly sounded like a thousand bees as everyone began to whisper and talk at once. He knew that most would take his offer, he had given this speech many time at other towns like this. Many of those who moved from here would be replaced with captives from his northern campaigns. It wasn't fool proof but it removed them from the comfort of the familiar. The Change had altered peoples thinking and most of them would becoming hard working and productive citizens within a year or two once they realized that Sacramento kept its word.

"My Lord-Commander." One of his signallers caught his attention. "Message from the Gatehouse, a rider approaching. One of the Los Vegas group our scouts saw last evening."

"Ballsy..." Muttered the Lord-Commander. "I like it. Order the picket line to let the rider pass. I will speak with whoever it is when I am finished here."

The signaller nodded to turned away, using a small hand held mirror to flash a quick series of signals back to the men on the top of the gatehouse. The Lord-Commander turned back to the plaza and then leaned forward on the pommel of his saddle. He could see families arguing amongst themselves. Already some had begun to stand. Mostly young couples or single individuals. In some places those who stood were youths, shrugging off their parents attempts to pull them back down. Making them chose their own fate had a decidedly advantageous edge in making them argue amongst themselves rather than simply being forced.

It occurred to him that he hadn't bothered to check the time when he told them they had five minutes and so he drew a precious and virtually irreplaceable pocket watch that needed to be wound from inside his chest plate. He felt a sudden hush fall on the crowd and glanced up to see them all staring at him in expectant horror.

"Three minutes." He growled. The buzzing began again.

He took the time to glance about the square at the soldiers who ringed it. Most were busy watching the crowd for any trouble makers, a few were working to staunch bloody wounds as medics worked through them. It hadn't been a totally flawless fight for his side. Maybe two dozen men had been killed, three times as many wounded, but it had been a remarkably low price to pay for taking a town of three thousand.

One thing he and the Lord-Marshal had not skipped was uniformity. They both knew the power of a uniform and how even a small group of men who looked and acted the same could rout a much larger disorganized group. Uniformity bred confidence in his own men and sowed fear amongst others who faced them. The emblem they had chosen from a book series, Game of Thrones. Both men had agreed that Dornes speared sun was appropriate for the region.

He flipped open the watch again, realizing once again that he had forgotten to actually *look* at the time. It must be five minutes, or close enough anyway. He sat up straight in his saddle and snapped his fingers at a bugler. The man sounded two quick blasts on the instrument and the plaza quieted again as the surrounding soldiers stepped seemed to stiffen, hands tightening on the grips of their weapons. At this point only fear of the unknown really kept the crowd in check since the victorious army only numbered a hundred or so over a thousand. The Rhodesians, most of them sitting quietly at the moment, were certainly key to the suppression of any attempts to attack the soldiers.

"Time to decide!" His voice boomed over them all. "Those who wish to live free, stand and be recognized."

It took a moment then people began to stand as he knew they would. It did not take long until the majority of them were on their feet. They did not speak, most just stood with their heads held high, ignoring the entreaties of their family members who still sat upon the cold marble.

"Captain." The Lord-Commander turned to one of his waiting officers. "Process them accordingly."

Soldiers began to move forward, leading those who had stood from the crowd in small groups. One hundred at a time would be allowed to collect what they could carry before being escorted out of the city. From there they would be escorted north. The new settlers for Bakersfield were already en-route, they had been waiting south of the city for the siege to end. Other soldiers began to drag away those who had remained sitting and forcing them to their knees on the steps of the Church. There was the expected crying and screaming of families being torn apart but ten years of bitter fighting following the end of the world had hardened the gentlest soul amongst them.

There were few enough, maybe a couple of hundred, that were forced to the steps of the smouldering church. It was to them that the Lord-Commander rode next, his subordinates could handle the relocation project, it was not the first one they had done. Those on the steps were a mix of young and old, men and women, tearful and defiant.

Once on the steps they were sorted again. This time they were sorted by age and health. Those who looked healthy were looked over by medics who pronounced them fit and able or not. There were many who refused to stand on their own two feet, instead crying out prayers to a God who did not appear to save them.

The group consisting of the elderly and those to sick or injured to be of use were herded into a nearby building and the doors were barred. Those who were still able of body were shackled and roped about the neck. They would be sold as slaves when the market re-opened. It was not a part of the job that the Lord-Commander relished, he still had the long ago instilled values of protecting those who could not help themselves but this was war, in a different time, and for all intents and purposes, a different world.

"Lock em up. Break them if you must." He said to the a small wiry looking man who offered him a thin smile. "They're worthless dead or injured. Your pay relies on it." The man nodded and saluted before ordering the shackled line into a shuffling march. They would be held in a corral until the time came to sell them. Those with attitude would be broken of it, somehow, the Lord-Commander didn't question the tactics of his men.

"Hurry Ladies and Gentlemen!" He called out to the soldiers moving about the plaza. "The enemy is sure to respond!"

Sure enough, to the south, someone had heard of the siege and troops were mobilizing to respond. Bakersfield's war was far from over.

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Character Portrait: Rafael del Riego
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"I'm trying to build an empire, because after this, I cannot get a normal job." - Nicole Polizzi

Sacramento, Sacramento
Change Year 10

Light flickered from the top of a tower in the south, short quick flashes that would mean nothing to the casual observer but meant everything to the two men who read it now. One was copying down the signals, the other deciphering it just as quickly. It was good news. The last of the message came through, they flashed a quick acknowledgement and then tore the message from the book, hurried over to a pipe that jutted from the towers floor, grabbed an orange tennis ball from a bucket of them, placed the message inside and then dropped it down the chute.

Four floors below in the guard room it dropped into a small cup that jingled as it landed. One of the soldiers sprang to his feet, grabbed the ball and then hurried from the guard room. He turned left and began to jog down a long dark passage lit only by narrow streams of light that came from the inner side of the wall. There were no challenges here, deep within the masonry of the capitals inner citadel. The walls had been built sixteen feet thick and 45 feet high, an awe inspiring feat, and tunnels within the walls themselves allowed soldiers to move unobserved by those both within and without the walls.

The soldier finally turned a corner and was challenged at once by another guarding a small door and portcullis that could be closed to seal one section from the other. He held up the ball and was allowed to pass at once as he hurried onwards. Here the wall melded into the main portion of main fortress, what had once been the State-Capital.

Another guard room and he was in the old building, suddenly stepping from the narrow stone passageway into a hallway with white walls and soaring ceilings. Carpets muffled his boots here as he continued to keep a steady pace. He could go no further as he reached the main entrance hall of the building. Once it had boasted a big bay windows and huge doors that opened onto the main lawn. No however the doors were gone and instead white washed stone and concrete blocked out the sunlight.

At the foot of the stairs he was stopped by two soldiers of the Lord-Marshals personal guard. One of them took the tennis ball, thanked him, and then turned and threw up the stairs at one of the girls clad in white who stood quietly at the top of the stairs. She caught it deftly, waved to the departing soldier and then hurried through the main building, up another flight of stairs, and onto the rooftop where two more soldiers waved her to pass.

The Lord-Marshal lay in the sun, naked expect for a small speedo, on a towel that showed a snarling tiger with the word “Mallorca” beneath it. His body was hard and trim, scars crisscrossing his chest and much of his upper thighs, the skin still white against the much darker natural hue of his native Spain. An aide sat nearby, also taking in some sun, but in a must less relaxed pose than his master.

“My Lord-Marshal.” She said as she got closer. One eye opened as he looked up at her from his position on the ground. “A message, priority one.”

He sat up at once and took the ball from her without a word, extracting the message from it and quickly unfolding it. A smile flitted across his face.

“Victory in Bakersfield.”

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Character Portrait: Aves Beckett Character Portrait: Dane Ledsham
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"Nothing can stop the man with the right mental attitude from achieving his goal; nothing on earth can help the man with the wrong mental attitude." - Thomas Jefferson

Bakersfield, Sacramento

"Las Vegas, huh?" the young lieutenant drawled loftily as he studied the black-and-red face mask on the small, tranquil woman perched on top of the sand-colored horse. He folded his arms across his chest and cast a sidelong glance at one of the sergeants standing by. "Care to elaborate how she got here?"

The man turned slightly to glance at the woman, then back to the lieutenant. "This civilian came to the picket on her own cognition, sir," he answered calmly. "Approached us on horseback and asked to see the Lord-Commander."

The officer grinned amusedly and fixed his hands on his hips. "And why should we allow you to do that?"

Aves' smile was obscured by her mask, her large brown eyes watching him calmly. "I'd say that's a question for you to ask the Lord-Commander after he and I finish our discussion," she responded serenely in her slight Southern accent, in a tone that almost made her sound reasonable.

The man blinked at her and narrowed his eyes, trying to analyze what it was that he might have been missing. "Are you crazy?" She smiled and shook her head, feeling the irony as she did so. "Are you a visiting dignitary?" The words popped out of his mouth almost as quickly as they'd entered his mind. She tilted her head and pointed to the mask, then pulled a small pouch from a pack on the side of her saddle, unzipping it and riddling through it just briefly before retrieving a thin metal rectangle. She offered it to the lieutenant and drew her spine up to full height, watching him as he studied the small piece. Once he caught the correct detail, he quickly flashed his surprised eyes up to hers, then to her mask, then to the card again. "Is this what I think it is?" She nodded slowly. His face was apparently skeptical. He studied the card again, then handed it back to her. "If you're lying, we'll execute you. Do you understand that?"

Aves nodded. "I wouldn't expect anything to the contrary," she answered coolly.

A long silence followed as the lieutenant continued to examine her suspiciously from where he stood. Finally, he cleared his throat and nodded to one of the scouts nearby. "Ride ahead and let the Lord-Commander know someone from the Las Vegas caravan is here," he instructed, then turned to the two who had brought Aves to him. "Take her there. But ride slow." He looked back up to Aves and nodded disattachedly, turning on his heels to go back to the small outpost along the defense line.

"This way, ma'am," one of them said politely, off to her left, as they began to ride out.

# # #

"There they are." Aves turned her head to look at what the voice to her right indicated, spotting the small group gathered at one of the outposts a short distance away.

"Thank you," she responded, keeping her tone calm and devoid of any kind of inflection to indicate her state of mind. They less they knew, the better. "Does your Lord-Commander typically inspect defensive structures?"

Silence. Aves rolled her eyes and smirked, and kept pace with the pair as they picked up their speed to reach the small group as quickly as possible. Before she knew it, they were there.

"My Lord-Commander, the trade envoy we spotted earlier has arrived." The trooper who had ridden forward was speaking to the largest of the group, a man who towered over the others by a good head in height. He turned to look at the small figure on the horse between his two troopers.

"Good afternoon. Nice to have someone from Sin City here today."

Aves nodded politely, and reached a hand up to her ear to pull off her face mask. She smiled courteously and extended a hand toward the man who could only be the Lord-Commander, even legendary in certain parts of the Paradise Republic. "Welcome to the San Joaquin Valley, Lord-Commander," she greeted brightly, allowing a genuine smile to work its way across her face. "It seems as though you've been busy."

The big man took the offered hand and shook it, smiling approval at her grip, noting all at once that she was pretty, well-built, and, for some reason, carried a guitar on her back.

"Well met, I am afraid you have the advantage on me, I do not know your name, Miss ...?" He left the last part hanging in the air.

She made a quick face and laughed to herself. "I apologize. I'm Aves Beckett. I'm part of the Las Vegas Proper Council, western capital of the Paradise Republic." She held her face mask up briefly to gesture at the simple emblem. "I'm a leader of the Las Vegas Proper Artisans, as well. Forgive me."

"Ah, of course, the name is familiar to me. A pleasure, Miss Beckett. And, yes, we have been busy. A hard night's work, you might say." He said with a thin smile as a waved his hand back toward Bakersfield. "I assume you are here on a trade mission. If so, please be assured that we do not make war on merchants unless they provide intelligence to our enemies." For a moment his face was deadly serious but then he smiled again. "I have of course heard of your skill with a guitar, I hope you and your fellows will join for a victory feast this evening."

She held her expression and nodded for a moment, keeping her eyes looking ahead confidently for a moment. "That's kind of you. But first, I should inform you why I'm here," she stated squarely, then turned to look back over her shoulder as she pulled her left leg forward and over her saddle, sliding off and onto the dirt, avoiding allowing the guitar to disrupt her descent. She didn't break her eye contact, despite the sudden drastic drop. The horse had certainly given her an advantage of height. "I'm not here to trade, Lord-Commander. I'd like to discuss something different." She gave him another nod. "It's quite confidential."

The Lord-Commander raised his eyebrow for a moment and then, after a moment's pause, nodded back. If there had been anything he was expecting from this diminutive woman, this was most certainly not it. Whatever had come into this woman's mind couldn't have been more than a day old, since it was doubtful she had known he would be there. He was intrigued.

He turned to the men that stood with him and gave them a curt nod. "Gentlemen, a moment if you please."

The officers nodded and moved a dozen paces away, just out of earshot but close enough they could still be called upon if needed. Around them small groups of disconsolate civilians were making their way out of the city under the watchful eye of red-and-bronze-clad soldiers.

Aves waited patiently until the Lord-Commander shifted his attention back to her. She nodded and took a deep breath.

For all the years she'd thought about doing this, for all the moments she'd told herself that one day this might happen and how it would be so gratifying to do, for all the time she'd spent envisioning this moment... she found herself feeling slightly more anxious about it than she'd imagined she'd be. However, it had to be done. It made sense.

"I'm here to help you take Las Vegas Proper, and the western portion of the Paradise Republic."

Of all the things that the Lord-Commander had been expecting, this was most certainly not amongst even his wildest expectations. He didn't try to hide the genuine look of surprise that flitted briefly across his face as the possibilities of what she was saying raced through his head.

Taking Las Vegas would be useful, of that there was no doubt. It straddled the only decent road through the desert and south into Arizona. Despite its rather remote location, it had come through The Change quite well due to the efforts of a collective of determined and skilled individuals, and the young woman standing before him had been one of its architects. 

"And why would you do that, Miss Beckett?" He said the words slowly. He would make no promises himself; the Lord-Marshal had an ultimate plan, but this offer could change it.

Aves dug her boot heel into the ground. So many ways to answer the question, but not enough time to go into specific details, nor the desire to; she had no evidence to assume that any of Sacramento's leadership would perceive hearing the entire story as being valuable intelligence or the ramblings of an overly-emotional and bitter woman. The entire story would come out in the near-future, anyhow.

The entire story was too much to get into at that moment, anyway, even if there was time and interest.

"I'd like to do that," she started, continuing to grip onto the reins to keep any anxiety distracted from creeping into her facial expression or body language, "because I think Sacramento can do a better job of protecting Las Vegas than Las Vegas can."

A smile tugged at the corner of the Lord-Commanders lips at the words. Whether it was amusement or a snarl it was hard to tell.

“I suspect that Las Vegas considers itself in need of protection from us rather than anyone else. I am however intrigued by your offer and I am sure the Lord-Marshal would equally be so.”

He jerked his head toward the lines of refugees slowly winding their way north. Already other groups were moving south from the waiting group brought by the army and being assigned houses.

“You can move north with them, if you like. I can provide you an identity disc that will you to arrive unmolested at the capital. Or do you prefer to stay here with us for now?"

Aves smiled appreciatively while eyeing the line preparing to go northward along the highway. "Thank you, Lord-Commander. I'm grateful. If you feel I should travel north to give the Lord-Marshal the details, then that's what I should do. Besides—"she watched the traveling group as the man had just indicated—"it looks like you have a lot of work to do."

"It would be best I think." He said and then drew a golden disc from the belt at his waist and handed it to her. It was small, no more than a few inches across, with the impaled sun in the middle. One the back side it had a strange looking rune on it. The Lord-Commander offered no explanation of the marking.

He turned and snapped his fingers towards the two troopers who had brought Aves into the city to begin with. They slid off their horses and hurried forward, saluting as they reached them.

"Gentlemen, Miss Beckett is to be taken to the Capital. She is to be delivered to the Lord-Marshal with all haste." He turned back to her. "Miss Beckett. These men will see you to the capital. This," he held up the disc, "will provide you all food, drink, shelter and fresh horses at any location you stop. Give it to no one but the Lord-Marshal himself."

He looked as if he was about to dismiss them when he paused, glancing toward the distant ridge line, then back at her.

"What would you like us to do with your comrades-in-arms?"

She palmed the disc and carefully placed it in an inner pocket of her long brown coat. She turned to steady her hands on either side of her saddle, then lifted a foot into the stirrup and hopped up effortlessly to prepare to ride again. She looked back toward the Lord-Commander and offered a gracious smile. "Thank you for your help," she replied warmly. She turned to look in the direction that he did, just southeast, back where she new the others were still waiting. Nervously, at that, was as much as she knew. "If it pleased you, I ask that you leave them be. They're my friends. They're not well-armed. They don't have any intentions toward you," she spoke just audibly, "and none of them are part of the problem." She swiveled her head back to look at him again. "The problems are back in Las Vegas itself." She paused briefly as she worked the mask back over her face, then held a gloved hand out toward him. "Thank you for your assistance, Lord-Commander. Perhaps we will be seeing each other again soon."

His massive hand closed over hers and for a moment he held the grip, his brown, almost black eyes, seeming to search her soul. After a few seconds he released her hand and stepped back from the horse.

"Then we shall let them be. If they ask for you, we will deny everything." He chuckled. "If your words are true, believe me, we will see each other again soon. Ride swiftly and safely."

He turned away from her and back toward the officers who were still waiting for him. The two troopers closed in behind her as she began to ride. They were there for her protection as much as to ensure that she did not stray, of that there could be no doubt.

Aves knew the path to Sacramento. Highway 99. Almost 300 miles to Sacramento. She'd studied the highway routes so often. It wouldn't be impossible to do reach the city within five days. It was about the same distance from Bakersfield to Las Vegas. It would be best if she managed to carry out her plan and still have the ability to be back in the city within a few weeks—before anyone would come looking for her.

Time was of the essence.

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Character Portrait: Klaus Bergmann
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"It is a curious sensation: the sort of pain that goes mercifully beyond our powers of feeling. When your heart is broken, your boats are burned: nothing matters any more. It is the end of happiness and the beginning of peace." - George Bernard Shaw

Bakersfield, Sacramento
Las Vegas, Paradise Republic
The Change, Year 10

Clarissa's bright, alarmed eyes scanned the horizon from where she stood at the edge of the camp. She adjusted her poncho and shifted her weight from one foot to the other impatiently. "This is killing me, Gary," she called out fretfully over her shoulder at the man sitting at a makeshift desk, focused on his task at hand. "We need to go after her. Right now."

"She made her own choice, Clarissa," he called back, patterning her speech as he did so, as he jotted down a few notes in a ledger. Clarissa paced inside their tent, the door flaps pulled up to still see over the valley. At the sound of his voice her head angled more over her shoulder as she shot him a disdainful look. "I know you're worried. But she made her choice."

"Klaus is going to come unglued on you," she hissed quickly, narrowing her eyes. "You don't deserve that but you know that's what's going to happen?"

"Yeah, I know," the man said, reaching his hands up to drag down the sides of his face. He leaned back into his chair and cast his eyes irritably out at the sky. "Aves doesn't realize what she's done."

Clarissa paused. Her eyes went clear for a moment as she contemplated what he had said, then she nodded. She should not have let Aves go. "Gary, I need to go back to Las Vegas." She whirled around fully and dropped to the ground to tug a small trunk from underneath their cot, her sudden movement surprising Gary.

"What for?" he demanded, springing to his feet and spreading his hands inquisitively. Clarissa was spontaneous by nature but wasn't in the habit of taking roles in situations like these. "What do I not know?"

She looked at up him. "I promised Klaus something," she said gently. "I'll tell you about it when you get back. Okay?"

Gary blinked and stared for a moment. "I don't like this," he repeated familiarly. "We're better off all traveling back together."

"No, someone needs to go, and go fast," she insisted, tossing some of her belongings into a trunk and packing a few changes of clothes and provisions into a backpack. "I'll take the speedy horse. She can get me there in two or three days."

"You can't send a bird?"

"Can't trust a bird with this."

Gary folded his arms across his chest and paused, rolling his tongue around in his mouth as he tried to think of some way to reason with herr. "I'll need to send someone with you to keep you safe," he gruffed. "That's one less person who can help get us on the road."

Clarissa plucked a small leather case from the trunk, her two favorite blades rolled up safely inside. "I'm not worried." Gary knew full well she wasn't afraid to use them. "I don't need much rest. The horse is terrific. We'll stop through Barstow and I'll switch out if I have to and you can pick her up on the way back."

Gary opened his mouth to say something, but a voice called out sharply from outside the tent. The two dashed out, and ran to the scout offering a pair of binoculars. Gary lifted them to his eyes, and frowned deeply. Clarissa impatiently reached toward him, snatching them away anxiously and sticking them up to her eyes: Aves, on the sand-colored horse, heading up the highway. She tore the binoculars away quickly, shoving them back into Gary's hands and started out toward the horses. "I'm leaving now," she said emphatically, skittering away on her long legs.

"Safe travels, Dear," Gary responded distractedly as he watched the scene.

# # #

Three days later…

# # #

"I wasn't expecting you to come back so early," said the tall, slender, sandy-haired man as he gestured for Clarissa to enter the house. He offered her a friendly embrace, grinning and chewing gum at the same time. "Jane's gone out, otherwise she'd be here to say hi." He shut the door behind her and offered her a spot in the large parlor outside of the kitchen area. He pulled a kettle off of the wood stove fixed next to one of the windows and retrieved a nearby mug. "Tell me how the route's going! You've all been gone for three months and I'm sure you've-"

"Klaus," Clarissa interrupted, waving her hands and looking at him seriously as he poured boiled water into the mug. "You told me to tell you if something went wrong."

The friendly face drew into a blank stare as he quickly realized what was going on. "What did she do?" he asked curtly and calmly.

She folded her arms across her chest and leaned into the doorframe of the large parlor. "Bakersfield is captured-"

His eyes widened. "It's true?" He suddenly startled back; in his moment of paying rapt attention, he'd accidentally burned his hand with overflowing water.

"-and Aves went to go initiate trade with them. So she said. But we spotted her riding north instead."

"Who took Bakersfield?" Klaus asked sternly, his eyebrows furrowing darkly as he absently waved his raw hand. He'd sustained some strange injuries over the last ten years, but being burned by hot water still felt uncomfortable, more or less.

"Sacramento. And the Lord-Commander is there."

Klaus opened his mouth to say something, but stopped for a moment before he reached his unscathed hand behind his head and cringed. "This… we need to do something. Is she heading north to…" he trailed off, the thousands of possibilities flipping through his fast mind. He shook his head quickly and looked at her. "You need to go to town to tell Giuseppe."

"I just rode three days in the Mojave with little sleep or food," Clarissa snapped back tiredly, tilting her head forward to glower at him from under her dark eyebrows. "If I have to ride in the next week I'm going to be pretty poorly off. No thank you."

"Then write a note and I'll have it sent down," Klaus instructed nonchalantly, rushing to a cabinet in the parlor and pulling out an old, blank notecard and a pen to set on a large table. "I'll get ready to go soon."

"You're sure about that?" Clarissa asked, immediately setting about transcribing a quick version of her account. "They took the city in less than eight hours," she recounted as she fixed her eyes on the paper, "and they brought a lot of people. A lot. Resettling a lot of locals, too, from the looks of it. They're not messing around."

Klaus started to rush toward the back door of the house, shouting an order from the porch to a young assistant wheeling a large box toward the smithery, then rushed back in. "That's fine. I'm not going to instigate a conflict. I just want-" he stopped for a beat, then continued quickly. "We just need to locate the whereabouts of our leader. That's our explanation. No reason for bloodshed."

"What about Jane?" Clarissa queried curiously, lifting her pen and waving the card to dry the wet ink. "She might not like that very much."

Klaus plucked the card from Clarissa's worn hands and started toward the porch to hand it off to his scout. "I suppose that's my problem."

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Fortress of Manteca, Sacramento
The Change, Year 9

The Mormons made their move under the cover of darkness, a hundred small boats quietly pushing off into the San Joaquin River, the oarsmen drawing heavily and swiftly for the far shore. Leading them, his boat low in the water with the weight of armoured men, was Bishop John Archibald, a man who thought Gods word was best spread with the mace at his side rather than any amount of preaching. He was fingering its heft now, gripping and re-gripping the leather wrapping with a determined intensity as he stared at the nearing shore.

They were landing just north of the walls that surrounded the town itself. Attacking the town itself immediately had been considered but the heathens had sensed something was afoot and closed their gates earlier than usual and more men stood to arms but as far as he could tell no one had thought to increase the watch on the river bank. He had been getting a steady stream of intelligence from local farmers sympathetic to the Mormon cause. The world may have ended and everything they knew turned ass over tea kettle but some people preferred the idea of a good ole white American boy like himself being in charge rather than the Spanish upstart in Sacramento.

He could feel the boat touch bottom before he heard the grinding of the hull against the stoney bottom, which was blessing, much of this river had sandy and muddy banks that would have made landing nearly impossible for men in armour. Without a moments hesitation he leapt ashore, the splash of his landing in the shallow water sounding strangely loud and he almost stopped moving but hesitation killed and so he plowed on through the knee deep water and up onto the river bank.

Before him stretched acres of empty field and he felt his great thrill as he realized they had landed unopposed. Or, almost unopposed. A sudden whip crack from the field and then a scream from the river bank followed by a splash told him that they had surprised someone. He took a knee, pulling the heavy mace from his waist as he stared into the darkness, nothing showed against the black waving fields of crops. He could hear other boats coming ashore now and a steady stream of men was pouring over the riverbank. He didn't hear the sound of the crossbow this time, the men behind him were making to much noise, but he saw one of his archers jerk back as if pulled by unseen ropes, the quarrel buried in his chest. Whoever was shooting was good.

Suddenly something moved in the darkness, a shadow within a shadow, a shadow that was retreating swiftly into the rows of crops. There was a sudden "swish" of air nearby and the shadow gave a short shriek and then collapsed into to the ground, one of the Mormon archers who had come ashore chuckled and muttered "Got em."

The stream of men became a wave as they trampled the crops flat, hurrying inland just as the western sky suddenly came alive with light as catapults stationed on the eastern bank hurled their flaming cargo towards Manteca. The Siege had begun.