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      Cassia stared at the sky and watched as thousands of little white flakes fluttered to the ground. 


      “They say it’s coming from the mountain,” Pliny said, gesturing to the hazy gray form of Mount Vesuvius in the distance. Where the mountain’s peak once stood, an inky cloud of darkness now bled across the horizon.


      “From the mountain?” Cassia asked. 


      “Yeah,” he said. “The tremors from yesterday, the noise, the smoke… all of it.” 


      Cassia crouched down to examine the fine layer of powder at their feet. If she squinted both eyes, she could almost convince herself that the whiteness was a thin blanket snow—but only almost. Snow didn’t fall in Misenum. Or, at least it hadn’t in the five years that Cassia had lived there...and certainly not in August.  


      “What is it?” she asked, standing up to meet his gaze. 


      “I don’t know,” Pliny sighed. “I don’t think anyone knows.” 


      Cassia felt an elbow in her back and whirled around. Distracted by Pliny and the strange powder in the air, she hadn’t noticed that the cobblestone street was now filled with people—young and old alike. There were so many that Cassia couldn’t help but wonder if the entire city had stopped to stare at the spectacle in the sky. She and Pliny stood at the front of the crowd, their arms filled with stacks of scrolls.  


      "My uncle left yesterday morning with the entire fleet,” Pliny continued. “He’s convinced that the people across the gulf need to evacuate.” 


      Pliny’s uncle was the captain of Misenum’s warships. Though he was a rash and hardheaded man (much like his nephew), he was often right about such things. In fact, he was often right about most things. It drove Pliny insane. 


      “Did he say why?” Cassia asked 


      “Does my uncle ever say why?” Pliny chuckled, shaking his head. Cassia smiled and rolled her eyes. 


      “Are you worried?” Cassia asked. “For him, I mean.” 


      Pliny shrugged. 


      “Nah,” he said. “The man may be old, but he’s durable.”


      Cassia frowned. She’d known Pliny long enough to tell when he was lying. 


       “Wha—” Cassia started, but was interrupted by an ear-splitting boom that tore through the atmosphere. The sound came from the mountain, almost as if the earth itself was bellowing in agony. 


       The world began to shake violently, bringing the crowd to its knees. Cassia held her breath. Though tremors were common in Misenum, something about this one felt different, somehow deadly. Pliny grabbed her by the hand and the look in his eyes told her that he was thinking the same thing. They pressed their foreheads to the ground and prayed to the gods to save them. 


      After what felt like a lifetime, the roar of the mountain reduced itself to a low growl, the shaking slowing to something more like a shudder. Pliny stood. 


      “We have to go. Now,” he demanded. 


      Though Cassia could hear his voice, she stood frozen in place, her legs as still as white stone columns. 


      “Cassia,” he pleaded, “I need you to run.” Then, without waiting for a response, Pliny grabbed the back of her toga and pulled her to her feet. 


      The world was a blur of chaos and color. People spilled from their homes and into the streets, swarming like ants in the open. Children were crying and mothers were shushing and fathers were trying to maintain some semblance of composure. Then, the sound came again. That deep, earth-shattering sound. Someone screamed, pulling Cassia back to consciousness. 


      “Pliny!" she shouted. "Pliny, where are we going?!” 

      “North,” he replied. 

      The two fled from the city, running as fast as their legs could carry them—and they weren’t the only ones. Throngs of terrified citizens pushed forward, shouting the names of loved ones in a panicked frenzy. As they ran, the cloud that had once seemed an amusing oddity rose behind them, doubling and tripling in size until it threatened to swallow the sun.  


      “We need to get off the main road before the light is gone!” Cassia yelled. 


      “We can’t!” Pliny yelled back.


      "What?!" she called.


      Pliny stopped short and turned to face her. “If we leave the road, there'll be no way to tell where we’re going.” 


      Just then a carriage flew by, so close that it nicked Cassia’s pinky. She yelped and pressed her mouth into a thin line. 


      “I know,” she snapped, tears stinging her eyes. “ But if we stay here, we’ll be trampled to death.”  


      Pliny took one look at the stampede of people and furrowed his brow.


      “Okay,” he sighed. Then, he yanked her into the underbrush.



      Hours later, Cassia’s legs burned in protest as they trudged through the weeds- or, at least what she thought were weeds. The blackness that had enveloped their world was like nothing that Cassia had ever experienced. The sun was gone... but so was the moon and the stars and everything else along with them. She couldn’t see anything. Not the path ahead, not Pliny, not even her own hand in front of her face. The dark air was hot and sticky and full of dust. With every step, Cassia’s lungs gasped for yet another breath that she did not want to take in. 


      “We should stop to rest,” Pliny said.


      “O-okay,” Cassia coughed. She groped her way over to the trunk of a tree and sat down, Pliny at her side. 


      Now that they had stopped moving, she could hear individual exclamations in the cacophony of voices. Some pled to the gods for help, others wailed that the gods did not exist at all. Mostly, the people just cried. There was nowhere to go, nothing that anyone could do. 


      Pliny leaned back into the tree trunk, causing a small heap of dust to plop down on their heads. Cassia couldn’t see it, but she could feel its fine coating all over her hair and face. She still wondered what it was. 


      “It’s ash,” Pliny said, almost as if she had spoken aloud. “I remember now, something from a story that uncle told me years ago- a tragedy.” 


      Cassia nodded, but then remembered that Pliny couldn’t see her face. She tried to clear her throat to speak, but it was too dry. So, they sat in silence, shaking the ash from their backs every so often to keep from being buried alive or crushed under its weight. 


      After a long while, Cassia finally spoke. 


      “I wish it were snow,” she choked. “Tell me it’s snow.” 


      “Okay Cassia,” Pliny replied solemnly. “It’s just snow.” 

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