“Sister Jemma, please respond,” Caroline called over the radio.
“She should have responded by now,” Das' calm voice broke through after another moment of silence. “I don't think we can attribute this to the natural interference.”
“No, we can't.”
“I'm at the station now. I think it went South from here.”
“It's probably at the next station already. I'm not even at mine yet.”
“It might have intercepted her. I suggest you curve to the South and that we meet up again.”
“Don't wait for me. Get to that thing as fast as you can.”
“This rig is slowing me down quite a bit. You can probably catch up to me.”
“Just go as fast as you can.”
Caroline eventually encountered Das on the path that went straight to the mountain. He stood out quite a bit from the other travelers she had encountered, encased in the flamethrower rig as he was. On top of that, he carried his supplies and a new box she hadn't seen before. His stamina was impressive. She ran the distance as soon as she saw him.
“You picked something up?” she asked when she'd caught up.
“Dynamite,” he said with a smile. His skin glistened from perspiration. “From the outpost. Our quarry took some of the weapons from the other one, right? Why were they there anyway?”
“Not important,” Caroline said. Her attention was drawn to a smokestack in the distance. It reminded her of the city. This was a natural occurrence though. “You think it's going in the direction of the volcano?”
“Yeah, I can just smell its excitement.”
“Did you find Sister Jemma?”
“Yes.” The smile disappeared. Caroline decided not to press the issue. She would read the report when this was all over.
“Why did you take the dynamite?” she asked instead.
“You're just full of questions, aren't you?” he said. “We can use it to lay a trap or something. This is one of the weapons we have that it shouldn't be able to recognize. If we want something blown up in the Below, we shell it into non-existence. It might try to eat you otherwise.”
“I see.” They walked in silence for a while. The volcano came into view at the end of the path. The forest around them thinned, making way for lowlier shrubs. “Why would it be so interested in a volcano?”
“Because it's big and evil-looking,” Das responded, matter-of-factly. “How many of these things are there in this Realm anyway?”
“We know of only this one,” Caroline said. “The Realm is vast, though, so there may be more. Supposedly, it contains a dragon of some kind.”
“Well, isn't this just our lucky day?” He laughed and stumbled. The box of dynamite almost fell to the ground.
“Do you want me to carry that? You already have the flamethrower.”
“No, it's fine, miss...I mean, Sir,” he said, looking slightly embarrassed.
They didn't really talk after that. As they walked, the landscape around them changed from a verdant forest to some kind of gray wasteland. There were very few plants and even fewer animals. There was a certain peacefulness to it, quite distinct from what the one the rest of the Realm enjoyed. This was more like the peacefulness of death. Appropriate, seeing as one of Caroline's sisters had died that day. She hadn't even been there to give her her last honors. That would have to wait now. This monster had now claimed both a Brother of the Night and a Sister of the Sun, desecrating this holy place with its actions, if it did not already do that with every breath. She wasn't angry. She felt calm, focused. For the first time in her life she understood what the senior knights really meant when they talked about Unity. Even this far away from home, she could feel the trust, and with it the strength, of the people she had left behind. Not just her sisters, but all of the people in the Republic. Together they could stand taller than any horror the universe might throw at them. She was just a piece of that machine, one that had become important to the dreams of the Republic. If she succeeded, the mind of the machine could continue with its plans. If she died, when she died, there would be others to do what needed to be done. There was no disgrace in failure, as long as the Republic existed there would always be somebody to succeed in her stead. As she looked at the path in front of her and the man walking besides her, not just a Brother but also her brother in a way, she felt proud and content. She would do anything to protect the Order and Stability that existed here. The Republic would need it. When it would progress beyond what it was now, it would be because she and all those others had given everything to make it happen.
“It looks perfect for a final showdown,” Das said, awakening Caroline from her trance-like state. She was unsure how long they had been walking but they were now on the slopes of the smoking mountain. There were no records of the volcano ever erupting but measurements had indicated that it was indeed an active volcano, assuming that it worked in the same way that those in Midgard did. “I think I see some kind of cave in the side.”
“I see it,” she said. There was a hole in the side. She estimated it to be about twice her size. Something was odd about it and as they came closer she realized what it was. The opening looked like a large lizard head, with the mouth opened wide. From up closer it was clear that this had been purposefully carved like that. The eyes were two red gems the size of a head.
“These people have way too much free time,” he remarked and they both smiled at each other.
“We'd better not let that dragon waiting,” she said.
“That would be rude,” he said. “I'll take point. We're eating roasted lizard tonight!”