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Ashes and Dust by Viktor Kachovski

Ashes and dust. Amidst the desolation, the taste settled upon her lips, mingling with the bitterness of her tears. It was a feeling even worse than the biting winds that whipped through desert storms. The gray horizon, engulfed in a shroud of smoke, bore witness to the ruins. Blackened fields stretched out like scars, and the mournful creak of wooden beams were all what was left of her once thriving villageTwo years had passed since she and her family moved in this fertile land, leaving behind the barren deserts of the Empire’s eastern reaches. Here, verdant greenery and abundant waters greeted them, a stark contrast to the arid wastelands they had known. Promised parcels of land for cultivation and livestock for sustenance, they had found solace amidst a community that, despite initial suspicions and hostility, had come together, transcending differences in appearances and language. Together, they flourished, meeting quotas with ease and reveling in the plentiful harvests that graced their tables.But then, the rebellion began. A band of raiders came to her village without warning. The local militia put up a brave fight, but the outlaws were too many to stop. Her fellow villagers were gathered up in the square and searched for passports. Most were spared, given a few coins and sent away. When it was her turn, she looked down at the stony pavement and gave it willingly. Their fearsome leader, with crimson armor, red eyes and clawed hands took it for inspection. When his eyes fell upon the label “Tenebrian,” he demanded to tear it into pieces and throw it away. Looking sternly into those fiery eyes, she refused. She was a proud citizen of the Empire, the greatest nation this world has ever seen, a beacon of order and stability. She had committed no wrong, having dutifully fulfilled her obligations to the state and Emperor. Why would they seek secession? Why would they forsake the abundance that life within the Empire offered? But they did, and their cruelty knew no bounds.The town hall, once a bastion of authority, was transformed into a prison for the valiant soldiers of the local garrison, her brother among them. Stripped of their Tenebrian passports, the outlaws callously discarded them into the thatched roof. The red man looked at her one last time and then came the dreadful command, words hissed into the air – “This is for Belitsa. Burn them.” The anguished screams still echoed in her ears. She spat the ash upon the scorched ground and slowly rose, dust blowing around her. Gritting her teeth, step after step, she started the long trek to the nearest city. Walls did not burn as easily as straw roofs. And when they came for her once more, there would be a pike, and not a passport in her hands to great them.