The ride across the Badlands was fairly uneventful. At one point, Ophilia stopped the bike for a moment when it looked like one of the warlord's bands was riding toward her. They were unlikely to harm a Sister of Battle, but her safety was not a foregone conclusion. Stopped, the Celestian steadied herself as she calmly reached for her boltgun and fired a semi-automatic burst into the air. The band was not likely going to want to face someone carrying a bolt weapon, and the rounds should identify her as a Sister of Battle if their leaders had brains in their heads. She then tucked her firearm away and continued driving. The warning shot did what it was supposed to do; the band came no closer to her.
After she returned the motorbike to its surprised owner - she hoped his surprise was more for the brief length of time she'd kept it, not the fact that she was returning it at all - Ophilia walked at a determined pace toward Eli's shop on the other, better side of town. The townspeople walked wide of her; her face was grim, and they likely thought she would cut her way through them if she had to.
And yet, when she reached the storefront, she didn't know if she could tell him.
Eli came out of his shop after she had stood there for several long minutes.
"Sister Ophilia," he greeted her, cheerfully. "This is a surprise. It seems like I just saw you a few days ago."
She wanted to come right out and tell him, to get the words out and get this over with, but she couldn't. Instead, she asked, "Are there any ships leaving for Scintilla today?"
Eli's expression turned grim as he drew nearer and saw that Ophilia was troubled. "Not that I'm aware of," he replied. "We haven't had a drop in a few days, and the ships that have been in orbit are headed in other directions, as far as I know." He put his hands on her shoulders. "What's wrong? If the Inquisitor needs you, I'm certain one of the ship captains will change his flight plans in order to get you where you need to go..."
"Can we go inside?" she asked.
"Of course," he said, a furrow creasing his brow.
"Can you close up shop?"
Eli stared at her for a moment. "I don't see why not. Like I said, we haven't had a drop in a few days, and I don't get much custom from the locals lately." He started the process of locking up and armoring the windows. "You're not going to tell me what's going on until I'm done with this, are you?"
"No, Eli," she said quietly. "I'm not." The news had brought her to her knees when she'd heard it. She wouldn't do the same to Eli until they were in private and he wouldn't have to worry about his store. She didn't want his grief to be an excuse for thieves to rob him of his livelihood.
"Shall we go upstairs?" he asked when he was done. Ophilia nodded and followed him silently up to his apartment over the shop.
His apartment was exactly as she remembered it, though she hadn't been up there in years. She remembered laughing and feasting with him and with Claudia up here. She remembered how embarrassed she had been, sleeping in the next room as she heard the sounds the two of them made together. How young and naive she'd been back then. She longed for the comfort that embarrassment would bring, if only it meant that Claudia were here today.
"Would you like a drink?" Eli asked, starting for the kitchen.
But Ophilia caught his sleeve, and he turned back to her. "Eli," she said, practically a whisper. "Claudia..." Oh God, she pleaded. Give me the strength to do this. "Claudia's dead, Eli."
Eli did not fall to his knees. He didn't do anything for a moment. He simply stood there, staring at her. Then he turned away and shook his head.
"No, that can't be right," he said. "You must be mistaken."
"Eli," she said helplessly.
"I would know if she was dead," he continued as he walked into the kitchen and began pouring amasec into two glasses. "She means everything to me, Ophilia, and I would know if she was gone. So whoever told you she was dead must have been mistaken. The message must not have been received properly. Just wait until she comes back..."
Ophilia followed him into the kitchen and put a hand on his arm. "Eli, she didn't come back. Palatine Rhiannon told me herself." She couldn't hold back the tears that she had thought were all cried out by now. "I saw... I saw her body, Eli." She reached for her belt where she'd tucked the symbol that remained from Claudia's chaplet after she'd removed the beads. "This was hers. She left it to me, but I want you to have it."
Eli took the symbol in his hand, ran his thumb over the top of it for a moment, then slammed it down on the marble countertop in a burst of emotion. His eyes closed, and he began sobbing silently. Ophilia moved her hand from his arm to his shoulder, then slid it up the side of his neck to his cheek. He opened his eyes and looked at her. Their red, watery eyes met. He was the only other person who knew how much Claudia's loss meant to her. They fell against each other in a desperate embrace, holding each other up as they released their grief-stricken cries together.
The two glasses of amasec went untouched as the two people who loved Claudia most in the world comforted each other in the only way they knew how.
- - -
It was a few days before another ship arrived in orbit that would be departing for Scintilla after refuelling and resupplying. Ophilia spent the interim with Eli, and they traded happy memories about Claudia in between customers at the shop. There was still an immense sadness that was almost palpable at times, but it was easier for both of them to be able to share their loss.
Ophilia shared Eli's bed until the day she left, but they did not share the bed as lovers after the first night. They just needed to feel each other's presence, and that was enough.
When departure day arrived, Eli prepared a magnificent breakfast and opened his shop late. As Ophilia finished the last few bites of succulent bosenroot quiche, she leaned forward with a sad smile. "You know I'm not coming back, right?"
"All your friends are gone," he replied. "It makes sense. You have no reason to come back."
"Not all my friends are gone, Eli," she said, favoring him with a smile. "But I know what I must do now, and I can't come back here just to see you, old friend."
He nodded. "You're going to get those bastards, right?"
"The bastards who got Claudia have been taken care of," Ophilia replied. "But yes, I'm going to get as many wretched heretics as I can. They will know the Emperor's wrath when they taste my blade and my bolts." From what she had heard before she left the Abbey, the heretic cell that was responsible for the atrocities on Ysai Ydumee sounded a lot like those damned Masqued heretics on Malfi. They had even called themselves the Sons of the Red Masque. She was certain there was a connection, and she decided to send a warning to Cardinal Barbosa when she arrived back on Scintilla, so that he and his fellows could keep their eyes open for a similar uprising - it would be a far bloodier battle, though, on a hive world like Malfi.
"I'm going to miss you, Ophilia," Eli told her, squeezing her hand tightly. "You're my last connection to the woman I loved."
"I'm going to miss you, too, Eli," Ophilia admitted. "I'll keep in touch. That's what Astropaths are for."
They both laughed and wished each other farewell with an embrace that lasted perhaps a bit longer than it should have. Then Ophilia made her way to the spaceport and got herself situated on the atmospheric shuttle that would take her to the trader's vessel that would carry her to Scintilla.
The Aegis turned out to be a large, hulking beast of a ship. Ophilia wasn't sure why she had expected it to be smaller, but she hadn't been expecting the trader vessel to be almost as large as a battleship. She was one of only a handful of passengers seeking passage aboard the ship, and the others kept to themselves as they got onboard.
"Greetings, Sister," came the smooth voice of the void master. "Welcome aboard the Aegis. Lord-Captain Orpheus is pleased to have you with us."
"I think the Lord-Captain for his welcome," she replied. "I wonder if I might be able to speak with his Astropath. I have a few messages I need to send before we enter the Immaterium. One of them is to Inquisitor Kaede."
The void master's eyebrows shot up momentarily when she mentioned the Inquisitor, but he recovered quickly. It had the desired effect, though, as she was led straight to the bridge. He announced her arrival to Lord-Captain Orpheus and the bridge crew, and Orpheus introduced himself with a flourish. It didn't take long before she was led to the Astropath's chamber, which the ancient psyker never left.
Ophilia provided two messages for him to send. The first message was to her parents, asking them to prepare the third floor for her arrival. They would be pleased to learn of her intention to claim the portion of the estate that would have been hers if she had stayed on Scintilla. Of course, the time she actually spent there would be quite limited, considering her second message. She told the Astropath which channels her parents used to receive their messages from off-world.
The second message was addressed to Inquisitor Vownus Kaede at the Tricorn, and it said:
I am departing the Abbey of the Dawn for the last time. I am yours now, completely. I've had enough of this respite, and I wish to get back into action as soon as possible. Depending on the skill of the Navigator aboard the Aegis, I shall be at your disposal in a few short weeks. I pray you have an assignment for me, as my weapons are hungry for the blood of heretics.
In the Emperor's Name,
Sister Ophilia Midkiff