Chapter 25
The Blue Haven

Near the Vallum Cornelium, Kyanopolis

Everything that lives produces a sort of energy and life is sustained by living things drawing from their own energy and the energy of the things around them. It is one of the fundamental laws of existence and while most creatures were unaware of this law and how it worked in their lives, Elves like Cassandra were particularly sensitive to this exchange of energy. It was one of the reasons their magical abilities were greater than most other races, because they were aware of the energy around them and could manipulate its flow.
The Naitalion, however, defied this fundamental law of existence. Watered with the blood of countless slain over the centuries and brimming with their hatred and despair, this cursed land knew only how to drain vital energy, like the winter cold sapping the warmth from your bones.
If the dead had risen up as the reports of the ill-fated Marshal Dale's patrol claimed, then as living creatures, Cassandra and her companions would draw them as moths to a flame. Cassandra could not fend off the legions of the dead alone and if she tried, such a display of her power might draw out something even worse.
The only way for them to safely cross was to conceal themselves in a cloak of dark energy. As an Alari, it went against her very nature, to say nothing of training and custom, and it wore on her greatly. It would have been trial enough for an hour or so, but lest they be exposed and overrun, she had to maintain the vortex of dark energy about them without ceasing for the twelve days it took them to cross the Naitalion.
Only when there was green grass under their feet once more did she break off the spell and promptly collapsed after doing so.
"Cassandra!"

* * *

When Cassandra opened her eyes again, she found herself in an unfamiliar place. The walls were brick with chipping plaster and the floors and ceiling were made of long-dead yet familiar wood. She was lying on a simple straw mat with the two Barnlings curled up asleep on either side of her. Rafael was off to the side sitting with his back to the wall.
"You're awake," he said.
"How long I have I been unconscious?" Cassandra asked.
"Three days. It took another day a' walkin' ta get ta the Blue Haven an' once we got inta the city, I got us a room. I thought it'd be better'n sleepin' outside, but now that I think 'bout it, maybe that would've been better for ya."
"It is fine," Cassandra said. "Thank you. You carried me all this way?"
"I sure as hell couldn't count on the kids ta do it."
"How did you get the money for our lodgings?"
"A thief's got his ways."
"Surely you mean a treasure hunter, yes?" Cassandra asked, with a hint of teasing in her voice.
Rafael chuckled to himself and shook his head.
"Aw, who'm I kiddin'? I'm nothin' more'n a thief, plain an' simple. B'sides, what're ya askin' me for? You can read minds, can't ya?"
Cassandra put her hand to her forehead and said, "Not right now, no. I used too much energy getting across the Naitalion. Everything is so quiet now. I cannot hear the voices around me or feel much of anything."
"Well, jus' get some more rest," Rafael told her. "We still got a few more hours till mornin'."
"What about you?"
"Don't worry 'bout me. You rest an' we'll see what tomorra brings."
Whether she willed it or not, Cassandra had no choice in the matter as her consciousness faded once more and she drifted off to sleep.

* * *

The next morning, they broke their fast on what little remained of the provisions they brought from Uthcaster and then they made their way out of the city to the forest to the south. Although Rafael did not take the opportunity to explore more of the city because he was preoccupied with watching over Cassandra while she slept, it was surprising just how similar the Blue Haven was to the High City. Perhaps it should not have been so surprising, as Cassandra explained that the city was founded by exiled rebels from the High City over two thousand years ago, though now there was a new people ruling the city. Somehow, despite having never been to the Blue Haven before, Rafael seemed to know certain places and could speak the language without even thinking about it. It must have had something to do with his ability to tap into ancestral memories that Cassandra told him about. Somewhere down the line, one of his ancestors lived here.
It took most of the day to reach the edge of the forest. The trees were tall and imposing further in, but here around the edge was mostly new growth. Cassandra placed her hand on one of the trees and said, "They are young, but they should carry my voice to El-Simil. This may take some time, so you may as well make camp. Cut no tree for firewood. Only use whatever dead limbs you find close at hand."
"Not like I got an ax anyway," Rafael said.
"I will be unable to talk with you until I am finished," she said. "See that I am not disturbed... please."
"I don't think anyone's gonna bother us out here. Good luck."
Cassandra nodded, then closed her eyes. Rafael felt the slightest hint of a strange sensation he could only imagine as her voice being projected through the trees.
"She's really speakin' to the trees," Sammy said.
"Through 'em, not to 'em," Rafael corrected him.
"Aw, whatever."
"Do you think the Elves're gonna help us?" Tammy asked.
"She doesn't seem to think so," Rafael replied.
"But this Lord of Shadow thing's a big deal, right?"
Rafael shrugged.
"Way Cassandra made it sound, Elves don't get involved 'less it affects them."
"Cassy said the whole world's gonna get swallered in darkness, right?" Sammy said. "Won't that 'fect 'em?"
"That's prolly the argument she's makin' now. Don't know if they'll listen or not, though."
They wouldn't find out the answer until after midnight. Rafael was leaned up against a tree half-asleep when Cassandra broke contact with the tree she was talking through. Somehow Rafael noticed and opened his eyes to look to her.
"How'd it go?" he asked.
Cassandra shook her head. She was looking rather dejected, even if it was the response she was expecting, so Rafael patted the ground next to him to invite her to sit down. She actually took him up on the offer. After sitting down beside Rafael, she did not say anything for a while before finally sighing and then started to vent her frustration.
"The elders say that I am exaggerating the situation, that this Lord of Shadow is no great threat. They will not be sending anyone to help us." She paused. "And I have been exiled for corrupting myself."
If Sammy had been awake, he would have likely said something like "That's not fair!" and gotten upset on her behalf, but all Rafael could say was "That's what ya were expectin', wasn't it?"
Cassandra sighed and nodded.
"Long ways ta come jus' ta be disappointed like this," Rafael said.
"It was worth it," Cassandra replied. "If they had agreed to help, it could have made the difference between victory and defeat. At least now we can say that we have exhausted our options."
"An' what? Now that ya don't got a home ta go back to, ya think ya can go die without any regrets?"
"I am not going there to die," Cassandra said, "though that is most likely what will happen. If I cannot stop the Lord of Shadow, perhaps I can at least disrupt his plans enough that Aurelia will be safe."
"Ya think she'll be happy with that?" Rafael asked pointedly. "Ya think he'll be happy with that?"
Cassandra gave him a weak, bitter smile.
"Jealous of a man you have never met. It is unbecoming, Rafael."
"Yeah, well, I ain't never claimed ta be no saint."
"It is not too late. You do not have to keep following me."
"I said I was seein' this through ta the end an' nothin's changed."
"But you and the little ones..."
"I ain't got no kinda life an' once those kids got banished, they were as good as dead. They can't survive on their own, got no prospects a' havin' a normal life. No mates or kids or anythin' like that. I don't know what kinda horrible fate we're lookin' at in the City a' the Dead, but it can't be much worse than what we'd face anywhere else in this God-forsaken world."
"You do not know that."
"Don't I?"
Cassandra looked at him, no doubt seeing what he had seen, and hung her head.
"Perhaps you are right..."
"Hell, I'm surprised ya can find anythin' 'bout the world that's worth savin'."
Unexpectedly, Cassandra placed her hand on Rafael's and told him, "You may try to convince yourself otherwise, Rafael, but you have not given up on this world entirely. However fleeting and fragile it may be, you know there is good in the world, enough to be worth fighting for."
Rafael could feel the warmth flowing into him from her. Reluctant as he was to accept it, as the warm sensation filled his chest, he had no chance but to be honest with himself.
"Alright," he admitted, "maybe it ain't all a waste."
And that was when it struck him. He took Cassandra's hand, the move prompting a faint flush to her cheeks, and said, "Ya wanna try for another lost cause in the mornin'?"

* * *

The Agora of Kyanopolis was an open-air forum where the Senate would convene to debate matters of public concern. While most of the affairs of state were dealt with behind closed doors, the Agora at least provided the appearance of an open and accountable government. It was mainly theater, but occasionally something significant could find its start here.
Part of the theater of an open government was a couple hours in the morning where in theory any citizen--and even foreigners as well--could make their voices heard. However, while foreigners were supposed to have a place among the natives addressing the Senate, Rafael's plan involved passing himself off as one of their own. He was dressed in the fashion of the young men of the city wearing a Roman-style tunica under a Greek-style chiton with a half-cloak to complete the ensemble. His normally mussy hair was slicked back in the fashion of the King as it was the custom for nearly all the men in the city to style themselves after the reigning King.
In truth, Cassandra was the one best suited for this task, but women were not permitted to speak in the Agora and indeed their presence there was largely discouraged. Were it up to Rafael's skills of oration alone, there would be no hope whatsoever, but the plan was for Cassandra to use her powers to speak through Rafael to make her appeal. There was little chance of succeeding and dubious prospects of much good coming of their efforts even if they did somehow succeed, but Rafael did not call it a lost cause for nothing.
A little creative use of Cassandra's powers ensured Rafael would be among the speakers. He would be the last of the eight selected so that his words would not be forgotten among those who followed. When his turn came up, an official announced, "And finally, Flavius Raffa, son of Flavius Tychicus the merchant."
Rafael could feel Cassandra's presence within him. She did not seize control of him but rather it was like having someone whisper into your ear and you could not think to say anythin but the words spoken to you.
Now, the Agora was not the exclusive domain of the senators. While they were seated in the places of honor with the King and his inner circle, a great many influential citizens and their families had a seat if not a vote in the council. They had no formal vote, but if they could be moved to raise a clamor, the senators were not likely to leave the voice of the people unheeded.
"Hail, fellow citizens," Rafael began, "our honored patrician lords, and our most august lord and master the King, in the name of all the gods great and small who govern our works and ways. I come before you this day with a word of warning and a call to arms. Two thousand years ago, our forefathers were driven from their homeland in the North and their blood watered the accursed fields beyond the Wall. We were once few and weak, but we have grown into a great and mighty city.
"The North calls to us, the blood of our forefathers clamor for it, but it is not to be, not while the curse of the Field of Slaughter remains. That curse grows stronger by the day. All the evils locked away in Hades will be vomited up into the land of the living and not even the Wall can protect us when that day comes.
"This calls for men of understanding, men of craft. Those who are counted as wise among us must seek out a way to purge the land of the curse once and for all, to put to rest the legions of restless souls that linger in that most unholy ground. If we do nothing, this city our home will be known as nothing more than a second City of the Dead.
"Time is short. We must act and act soon. Sadly, this cannot be accomplished without great sacrifice, but it is a choice between sacrificing much today and sacrificing all tomorrow. May wisdom guide you honored lords that by your judgment this city and her people may be saved."
Now step down before they start asking ay uncomfortable questions, Cassandra told him.
Rafael bowed and withdrew as the Agora was filled with mutterings. While Rafael needed to rely on Cassandra to speak in front of an audience, it was his own talents that allowed him to slip out before he was detained. He rejoined with Cassandra, who was not far off because she needed to keep him within eyeshot for her powers to work effectively.
"You did well, Rafael," she said. "Perhaps you have a future as an orator."
"Only if you're feedin' me lines," Rafael replied. "Ya got me thinkin', though."
"Yes?"
"Ya think this is a good idea? Ya might jus' be leadin' 'em ta the slaughter an' if they do get through, what's ta stop 'em from goin' on north? Won't that be a problem?"
"I am not so certain they will do anything," Cassandra said, "and while I would like to avoid needless sacrifice, if they could even serve as a diversion for the enemy, it could prove useful."
"Till they add their corpses ta the legions a' the dead."
"I am hoping there are people educated enough to wage the campaign more intelligently than that. Surely there are scholars, mages, priests, anyone who can understand the threat we are facing. My intention is that your performance will stir the hornet's nest so the rulers of this city will seek the counsel of such wise men. We should try seeking them out as well. If we can explain things to them first, we may be able to win them over to our side."
"Ya sure it'll work out that well?"
Cassandra shook her head and said, "Not at all, but you were the one who suggested this lost cause."
Rafael shrugged.
"I guess so. Shall we get goin' then?"