Molcru slammed his fist once more into the cliff face and secreted a thick, gluey substance that adhered him to the rock.
He was several hundred feet up, and had several hundred feet to go, as far as he could tell. It was slow going. He dared not move quickly, as the wall was comprised of rock that did not appear to be stable, and Molcru was too large to reliably find handholds. As a result, he was forced to repeatedly punch holes directly into the rock, which could cause a critical fault in the surface and cause a landslide, sending him tumbling down into the canyon below.
A voice from behind his head said, “Your hat's going to blow away.”
Molcru grunted as he hauled himself up another several feet, “Can you hold it for me please. My hands are in a cliff.”
“Alright.” Molcru felt his hat come off, and the insistent wind tugged at his face wrappings.
“Hold onto it tightly. It was very difficult finding one that would fit me.”
There was silence for several minutes, beset by Molcru's rhythmic climbing blows.
After a time, the voice said, “We should have just taken the ferry down the river. We'd be there already.”
Molcru replied, “I told you, I did not like that ferryman.” Slam. “He was very rude.”
“Yes, he was, and while the price he asked was ridiculous, it's not like you couldn't afford it. Alternately, if you didn't want to pay him, you could have just smashed him to pieces.”
“If I had smashed him, he would not have been able to operate the ferry.”
“You could have threatened to smash him.”
“I could have. But I did not. He wasn't worth it.”
“I thought he was worth it.”
“Like I said, we'd be there already if we had taken the ferry.”
“The ruins are not going anywhere.”
“No, they're not, but I'd like to be the age I am now when we get there instead of the old woman that I'm going to be.”
“We will be there tomorrow afternoon at the very latest. Be patient.”
“I can't exactly share your perspective on patience considering that I'm not immortal, Molcru. Sometimes things have to be rushed because if you don't you'll be dead by the time you get around to them.”
“I do not think this is one of those instances, Fala.”
“No, but my point still stands.”
“Perhaps. Bear in mind that I do not sleep. We cover twice as much ground as the other parties. So, in a sense, we are going twice as fast as everyone else. I think we can afford to take the long way every once in a while. Can you see how much farther it is until we reach the top?”
There was a pause, then, “Looks like two hundred feet.”
“We are making progress.”
Fala sighed. “Slowly but surely.”
A roaring noise erupted from behind them, and a gout of flame crashed against the cliff face two yards to Molru's left. He stopped climbing and looked at the now-scorched stone.
“... Was that fire?”
She said uncertainly, “I think we're being attacked by dragons.”
Molcru said nothing, clinging to the cliff with his fists buried in the stone.
Fala said with more urgency, “I think now is the time for action rather than thought, Molcru.”
He said, “I cannot see behind me without letting go. How many of them are there?”
Fala looked out across the canyon.
Before her were five small dragons, just barely larger than hatchlings. They were still longer than Molcru was tall, however, and their sharp maws crackled with flame. Their scaly hides were dazzlingly red in the setting sunlight, and their white claws glinted maliciously. They flew in place, as though considering how best to knock them off the cliff. One gave a shrieking scream and fired another gout of flame from its mouth, narrowly missing them. Fala was instantly grateful for their poor aim.
She said, “There are five, and they're getting closer. They're going to hit us eventually. That won't be so bad for you, but it'll be pretty uncomfortable for me.”
Molcru nodded, “I understand. Can you hit them from here?”
“I think so, but-” another pillar of flame sailed above Molcru's head, knocking loose some orange-brown gravel, “- I can't stop those fireballs.”
Molcru replied, “Leave that to me. Shout out the moment one of them is going to hit you. I will block the fire. I'm going to keep climbing, this area is becoming unstable. Discourage them. If you can't, kill them.”
Fala turned back toward the dragons whelps. “I'll try.” She gathered her mana, and blue-white sparks began to leap from her fingers. Lances of energy crackled visibly across her hands.
She speared her arm toward the nearest whelp, and a flash of lighting lanced outward, slamming into the whelp's chest and momentarily illuminating the surrounding area. The electricity spread across the creature's chest and through its wings, burning holes in the membranes and setting them alight.
This all happened within a fraction of a second. The whelp shrieked, then began to flap unevenly down to the earth, unable to keep itself aloft with holes in its wings.
As though in retaliation, another dragon unleashed a stream of fire directly at her.
Fala shouted, “Molcru, now!”
The lich slammed his fist into the rock face once more, and a surge of black-green tentacles burst from the stone, reaching inward from either side to form a woven barrier that absorbed the inferno, then retracted.
Her vision clear, Fala adjusted her stance, leaning outward while gripping a strap on Molcru's coat to prevent her from falling. Her free hand hummed and snapped as dense ropes of electricity arced ferociously across her skin. She set it loose once more, and the bolt branched, striking and incinerating two of the dragons at once.
The remaining two whelps snapped at them, but retreated, no longer sure that there was success to be had.
Fala exhaled, suddenly very tired. She said wearily, “They're gone. I blasted three of them, and the other two flew off. Hopefully they won't be back.”
Molcru replied as he climbed, “That was close. Too much more fighting would have probably shaken me loose. As it stands, we are probably going to fall anyway.” Slam. “I was hoping to avoid using my growths. Their underground movement most likely destabilized the rock. If we fall, orient yourself onto my chest, and-”
“'- and you will cushion my fall by absorbing the impact.' After three times, I know the procedure, Molcru.”
“Just don't want you to be hurt.”
“I know.” Fala pulled herself onto the top Molcru's back, tying her legs once more into the canvas loops on Molcru's longcoat. Perched on one of the lich's enormous shoulders, she watched the sun set behind the canyon's walls as they rose steadily upward.
Molcru rumbled, “Your magic is improving.”
Fala turned to face him. The lich's surprisingly vivid eyes were concentrated on the rock. She replied, “Do you think so?”
He glanced in her direction. “Yes. That was real lightning. I think. I couldn't see from here, but it sounded like it. You shot down three small dragons with two bolts. That sounds like lightning to me.”
“I really want to get better.”
“As I said, you are improving. Before long the thunderstorms themselves will be jealous of you. And you may yet even be able to stun me.”
Fala smiled at him. “I don't think that's going to happen. Every time I try to shock you you just absorb it. How do you do that, by the way?”
Molcru answered, “What is the one thing that all non-magical biological beings have in common?”
“The one thing pertinent to this discussion. And not all organisms have blood, but that is a different lesson.”
“I give up.”
“All standard biota is powered, to some extent, by electricity.”
“It is not. We're not machines.”
“No, we are not, and yes, it does. Later I can prove this to you practically, but for now, consider this: how does your body move?”
“By using the energy that it gets from food.”
“Yes. But more specifically, how does your body know-,” slam, “-what to move at any given moment?”
“Your brain tells it to.”
“And how does it do that?”
“I... don't know. It just... does.”
“No. Divide yourself from that kind of thinking. Never accept that things just happen.” Slam. “There is always a reason, for everything that happens. And you should strive to learn these things.”
“I know. So how does the brain control the body?”
“Yes. Your brain is full of tiny electrical relays that are responsible for sending and receiving information to and from every part of your body. These signals are why you can see, feel, taste, smell, hear, and think. When you die, they stop. But at all other times, the living body is full of electricity.”
“I had no idea.”
“Now you know. This principle, then, is what allows me to manipulate the electricity you give me by firing it at me. I convert packs of cells in my body into structures that can store electrical energy. I command my body to channel the energy through specific pathways to these structures, then I can simply direct it back toward you, under the right circumstances.”
“Can you generate your own electricity?”
“Yes, if I'm given the time to grow these organs to the correct size and shape. But I cannot direct the energy itself, as you can. You use magic to create and harness this power; I cannot. So, I will never be able to generate as much as you, and I could only shock by touching. If I wish to shock someone at a distance, I must use a charged tentacle.
“Also, bioelectricity is accountable for why your lighter attacks stun people. The overload scrambles the body's ability to send signals, and they lose control.”
“Hm. Can we fight later?”
“Do we need to?”
“Do we need to need to?”
“I suppose we could work in more training. But I question its practical use. You will not come across many opponents like me. I am very large, very strong, and very slow.” Slam. “Dodging my attacks is simply a matter of jumping out of the way. Most others will be much faster and harder to avoid. While it is true that if I hit you once, you will most likely die, it does little good if the one hit never occurs. You have already demonstrated your ability to all but negate my attacks with your agility. I can scarcely catch you at all anymore. What use does further combat training with me have?”
Fala replied, “It will help keep me in shape if nothing else. You don't have to work out to stay in your condition; I do. But what you say makes sense. You're an atypical person to fight, and if I go up against you and no one else, I'll never learn how to handle other fighters.”
“We will find a way.”
“Since we've reached the logical end of our hand-to-hand combat, can we start sparring with magic? In a legitimate sense, no holding back?”
“Little one, if I did not hold back, you would die in an instant.”
“I know, but that's not what I mean. Can we use more advanced magical tactics instead of me just shocking you every once in a while? Use those tentacle things. Or some plants. Fyo'Dwara's sake, I'll even let you infect me in the middle of combat as long as you heal me afterward. I've got to learn to fight through sickness, right? And even if you go all-out, there's no way I'll actually die as long as you heal me.”
Molcru was quiet for a moment. “Hmmm. You do have a point. But I have several objections.”
“I am not comfortable with causing you such misery. You do not know the horrors that lie in true sickness. Plague, pestilence, and disease are the nightmares that lurk in the shadows of mortal minds. They are the root of all disgust and revulsion. Let me be clear. The many diseases at my command will induce a range of symptoms. You will bleed from every orifice on your body.” Slam. “Every orifice. You will vomit. You will vomit blood. You will vomit until there is nothing left, not even bile. You will seize. You will writhe in a puddle of your own excrement.” Slam. “You will be visited by nightmarish visions spawned by your own mind. You will quite literally be driven insane by the physical torment. Reality will become an illusion, and you will only know pain and nausea.” Slam. “You will likely beg for death, if you are capable of speech while drowning in your own filth. I am not exaggerating and I am not embellishing the experience. All of this will happen to you. And these are the least of the terrors I can inflict upon you. Am I making myself understood?”
Fala said in a very quiet voice, “Yes.”
“Then you understand why I am not comfortable with the idea. I know that you will suffer no lasting physical harm. I can and will restore you from any illness, no matter how crippling.” Slam. “But I fear for what will become of your mind after being subjected to such experiences. You will either become hard as iron or as brittle as glass. And if you do not return, I will not be able to bring you back. There are some scars that even I cannot heal.”
Fala nodded silently, unable to find her words.
“This leads directly to my next objection. Even if I choose not to infect you, my ability to command growth allows me physical versatility that I do not normally have access to. While it is true that I am slow and easy to dodge, it becomes irrelevant when I can grab my opponent with elastic tentacles fired from my arm and pull them over to me.” Slam. “Not to mention underground growth that can burst up from anywhere there's ground and tear individuals to shreds. So. The trauma you will suffer will be severe. And while I can bring you back, if your head is accidentally injured, there is nothing I can do. I do not understand the true inner workings of neural tissue. The brain is what dictates your personality and inner self. If it becomes damaged, I do not know how to fix it, because what cells go where and what neurons cross which is impossible to know. And the slightest change will result in someone completely different than who was alive before. I cannot repair a broken brain. If that happened to you...” Slam. “I do not know what I would do. Do you understand?”
Fala nodded. “I do. Is... is there any way you could take it easy? Only use light infections? Just a bit of vomit, maybe?”
Molcru laughed suddenly, a booming noise that threatened to shake apart several rocks. “You are a brave girl. Very well, if that is what you want, I will make you fight with the sniffles from time to time.”
“I just want to become stronger. Tougher. Like you.”
“Well. This will certainly help. You are not going to have fun with it, I fear.”
“Who needs fun when you're unstoppable?”
After an hour, Molcru finally reached the top of the cliff, and the two were met with a dense forest. Fala decided it was time for bed, and wrapped herself in the canvas sleeping hammock that hung from Molcru's back. While she slept, Molcru walked onward, toward the ruins that were their goal.