Ari and Roe walked alongside the rumbling hauler, silhouetted against the twinkling lights of Aeris and the terra-mid behind them. The hauler’s solid beam of headlights illuminated the dark dusty road ahead, reflecting back onto the tired faces of the young women, as W0RM rested, curled up in a ball, high atop the frontmost empty algae tank.
Roe stared into the distance, her eyebrows furrowed, lost in thought. She had barely spoken since the alley. Only a few mumbled words to Ilona as they picked up the hauler, and a grunt or two directed towards the guards who scanned their belongings as they left the city. But not a word to Ari. Neither in acknowledgment nor protest, as they walked back towards the farm together.
Ari took a bite of the half-eaten steamed bun in her hand and, seeing Roe’s expression, simpered sympathetically. Through a muffled mouthful she asked, “How’s your shoulder?”
Roe said nothing.
Shrugging, Ari returned to the bun and spoke through another mouthful, “These are seriously amazing. I’d kill to have something like this in Coelum.” Her eyes suddenly widened in excitement, “Ooo, does she do shipping?”
“So the Church," Roe suddenly spoke, her eyes still locked on the road ahead, "the Haematites. They’re all... like you?”
Ari looked to her surprised, wiping her mouth after wolfing down the rest of the bun.
“No--no, they’re... well, it’s complicated.”
Roe glanced at Ari with an expectant, almost annoyed, look. "Try me."
Ari cleared her throat, “Um, okay, so the Haematites. They’re just normal--people. Worshiping the Creta, the seeded Earth beliefs, all that. It’s just--” she broke off, “I--we--are not Haematites.”
Roe looked to her, eyebrows raised.
“I’m part of an ancient sect of sorcerers called the Adarai,” Ari continued, momentarily pausing for effect. “And we’ve existed in one form or another for about five thousand years.”
Roe scoffed, “alright, come on--"
Ari snapped her fingers and, in an instant, a flickering blue fire was hovering in the palm of her left hand. Sinister shadows cast by its flames darkened her normally cheerful face, as she feigned politeness, “I’m not finished.”
Downplaying her surprise, Roe raised her hands in defeat, “Okay--I’m listening.”
And just as quickly as they appeared, the flames flashed out of existence, as Ari nonchalantly closed her fist and continued. “At the dawn of civilization on Earth, our people discovered these ancient and powerful artifacts that were left behind by something that had come before. And these texts and totems are the things that unlocked the hidden power of the realms--umm, magic, in other words--for humankind. So for thousands of years, we operated in secret, trying to protect but not influence humanity’s progression--umm, well, as much as we could.”
Ari paused to shift her bag on her shoulders. Seeing this, Roe reached out to grab it, “Here just--we can put it on the hauler.”
“Oh--thanks,” Ari said, a little surprised by the gesture, as she handed Roe her bag and staff.
Roe kicked open one of the storage compartments between the steadily clinking tracks and tossed them inside before rejoining Ari. She was squinting with a puzzled look, “Okay--so a long time ago, you guys found some stuff that taught you magic--and what does that have to do with the Haematites?”
Pleased that Roe appeared to be following her more or less, Ari continued, “Yes, so we--the Adarai--never really knew where those came from--our founding texts.” She held up a knowing finger, excitement in her eyes, “That was until your grandfather discovered the Creta.”
A look of comprehension began to dawn on Roe’s face.
“Yes,” Ari said, off of her look. “Exactly. So, after seeing that the artifacts he uncovered were nearly identical to those our ancestors had found on Earth, the sect came to Mars and, luckily for us, the Church had already been founded so...” she broke off, “We kind of infiltrated and took over its operations.”
Roe’s eyebrows raised in shock.
“Not violently or anything,” Ari said quickly in defensive. “It just--let us study our origins while still maintaining the necessary secrecy and control that’s required when dealing with the hidden forces of the universe. That’s all.”
Roe shook her head, stunned. After a moment, she scoffed then laughed. “Wow. And they don’t know? The Haematites?”
“The most senior leaders do, of course. They work with us. You know, they help us research the Creta and their origins, and we provide select pieces of... inspiration for their services and their followers. It’s still a functioning religion. We just... operate within it, behind the scenes.”
“Shit,” Roe shook her head, “That’s... somehow not surprising.”
Unsure of how to respond, Ari smirked, nonplussed.
Roe’s eyes returned to the road ahead, and, after a moment, Ari helped herself to another steamed bun. Thin, high clouds hid the stars and glowed pink above them, reflecting the city lights below, and the familiar neon green glow of the distant farm had appeared on the horizon ahead.
A long moment passed, and Roe’s amused expression shifted back into furrowed contemplation. “And this--prophesy...” she started again, her eyes staring ahead towards the glow.
Ari looked to her, a little surprised, wiping her mouth after wolfing down the rest of the bun.
“It was made by one of you--” Roe hesitated. “An Adarai?”
“Yes,” Ari replied. “One of our sages.” Roe slowly nodded, and Ari pressed on, “We were on a dig outside of Elysium Mons...” She recounted the story of the flaming Cretan obelisk and the prophecy it had imparted.
“So it was some kind of message? Left by them, the Creta?” Roe asked after Ari had finished.
“That’s what the council and sages seem to believe, yes,” Ari replied.
“But how does any of that--stuff--have anything to do with me?” Roe asked, a tone of impatience rising in her voice.
Ari looked to Roe and sighed. Frustrated, Roe’s eyes fell to the ground before returning to the distance ahead.
“There was a girl,” Ari began, “A young woman. In the visions. That the sage was seeing. The one who received the prophecy.”
Roe glanced at Ari, her steely expression softening.
“She said she saw three people. Eder Mirela, the son of the Flamen Martialis, the Church’s leader. Carter--umm--your grandfather. And this--girl she didn’t know.”
“Then how--" Roe began.
But Ari cut her off, “--Carter. He heard Tanith’s description and said he knew it had to be you.”
Roe scoffed, “He knew it was me? Are you kidding--"
“--Tanith,” Ari cut in again, “said that it felt right, and, when a sage has a gut feeling about something, it usually is.”
Roe muttered to herself under her breath and returned her gaze to the road ahead.
Ari gave a small sigh and said nothing, as the glow of the farm grew closer in the distance.