Finally released from the man’s mad grip, Momo slithered past him and into the study. Had the woman been here the entire time? What did she mean by experiment?
“Sister, our savior has come at last!” the man exclaimed, throwing up both his hands.
“Gods, for the last time Leonardo, won’t you shut up–”
Finally noticing Momo, she scowled.
“Wait, savior? Has she injured the experiment?” she laid down her things and leaned over the edge of the bunk bed, “you - the small, tired one. How dare you barge in here and defile my glorious laboratory?”
Momo’s face fell. Why did she feel the need to differentiate between the man and her by calling her small and tired? She had to have other qualities of note.
“Experiment? I don’t know what you’re talking about, miss,” Momo said, increasingly less eager to find out.
The woman sighed dramatically and shoved her books aside. She slid down the bunk bed ladder and rolled whimsically on her heels, turning to tower in front of Momo. She looked equally as expensive as her counterpart - wearing a flowing dress, a jewel-encrusted belt, and two heeled leather boots.
She got very close to Momo’s face and wagged an accusatory finger.
“Have you slain any beautiful creatures on your way to this room?”
Momo swallowed. How should she put this…
“Nothing beautiful, no,” Momo said.
“Are you sure? You don’t look like an authority on what is beautiful,” she huffed, “that blue is certainly horrendous.”
Momo looked down at her robes and felt immediately incensed. Not really for herself - but for the sweet eldergoat lady that had sold them to her. If she had thought the blue flattered Momo, then it did. It could be the ugliest blue to ever shade the night sky, and Momo would say so.
That merchant had been kind to her - an experience Momo did not quickly forget in a universe often brimming with meaningless cruelty.
Case and point: this woman.
“It’s not horrendous,” Momo said defiantly, “it’s pretty.”
Her upgraded version of [Burgeoning Confidence] was certainly rearing its head quite quickly. She could never have dreamed of saying anything ‘defiantly’ in her past life. She was the type to frequent adverbs like meekly or miserably, but that was slowly changing.
Her brain chemistry was rerouting - and Momo couldn’t be happier about it. She planted her feet firmly on the floorboards, standing her ground on an arguably useless debate.
“Whatever you say,” the woman grimaced, “regardless, I will not tolerate you in my chambers. You are not an invited guest, and today is a very important day for me. Today marks the day I become a mother.”
Mother? She couldn’t possibly mean…
Momo searched the room, desperate for signs of a human child. There was nothing - no crib, no baby food. She looked up towards the top bunk, and it was notably infant-less.
This was a very bad sign. She looked back at the woman, who was staring out the window with a grin of utter affection. One filled with motherly love.
“I’m sorry, do you mean the giant zombie glob outside?”
“Why of course I mean the giant zombie glob,” she said with no hint of irony, clasping her hands together, “my precious magnum opus. He has been cooking in my manor for years now, once a tiny, senseless limb-child, and now a fully-grown glob, ready to take on the world.”
She went up to the window and pressed her nose to it.
“He’s still a little wobbly in the walking, but it’s just first day jitters, I know it.”
Momo was completely speechless. She craned her neck nearly 180 degrees to look at Leonardo in disbelief.
“Please ignore my sister’s ramblings, she is enamored with the… thing,” he said, contempt filling his voice, “I knew that Lione was a powerful sorcerer, but I didn’t know she had the power to concoct something so ugly.”
“Do not call it ugly!”
“I didn’t, Lione!” he jeered, “you misheard me!”
They had a silent stare-off. Momo was suddenly grateful for how normal her sibling relationship was - or had been, she supposed, with a pang of sadness.
Wait - Lione? Momo screwed her eyebrows in memory. The woman had to be Duchess Lione Baumfreund, owner of Baumfreund Manor and a notable member of the Earl’s ‘suspicious list.’
Staring at the glob inching ever closer to Bruda, Momo understood very clearly why she ended up there.
“Is it an undead?” Momo asked inquisitively. If this woman was a necromancer, then she had to be one on par with Valerica, or at least Devola.
The woman gave her a doubtful look, “what would you know about such things?”
“I’m a [Necromage Initiate].”
“A Necromage? That sounds like a made up word.”
Momo was already tired of explaining the difference, so she decided not to.
Lione huffed, “yes, it is undead. But I see past that. Before anything, it is mine,” she said gravely, with a motherly tone, “I’m sure you understand. That undead cat is yours, no?”
She pointed towards Dusk and Momo’s eyebrows shot up. She had forgotten to recast [Disguise] after [Invisibility] had worn off. Dusk was absentmindedly scratching at a wall in all of her skeletal glory.
“That’s different,” Momo mumbled.
“And how so? You come in here, judging me like my halfwit brother, but are no different than me. My creations are my pride and joy. I want nothing but to see them thrive.”
“It is different,” Momo asserted, louder now, “I would never send my cat to devour a city of innocents.”
She’d feel bad if she sent Dusk to steal a can of tuna, no less to raid an entire village.
“We all mother in our own ways,” Lione shrugged, “as a [Dark Conjurer], I view my conjurations both as my children, and as my life’s work. If you do not agree with that, then you can leave. Or I will make you.”
Lione’s pupils dilated to completion, filling the entire iris; simultaneously, a black glow formed around her open palm. Momo felt suddenly like she was being squeezed from the inside, her organs wound tightly by rope. She struggled to breathe, her throat constricted.
For the third time this month, she had the innate knowledge that she was about to die. Only this time, she’d go out like a lemon being pushed through a lemon squeezer. It was much less humiliating than the cheeseburger death, so she couldn’t be too mad.
“Lione, stop it now! That’s quite enough,” Leonardo interjected.
“Ugh, fine,” Lione waved her hand, dismissing the incantation. Momo inhaled sharply. The black rim around her eyesight began to clear.
As soon as she could catch her breath, Leonardo ushered her outside of the room. He closed the door with a hard click, and the pair of them stood silently in the hallway.
Having come down from his utter panic, Leonardo seemed much less frenetic now. Either that, or he just seemed a lot more sane now that Momo had met his sister.
“I’m sorry about her,” he said, bowing his head, “she wasn’t always like this.”
“Totally evil and mean?” Momo coughed, feeling her organs re-expand inside of her like inflatable balloons.
“Yes,” he grimaced, “she used to be a very talented [Sorcerer] back when we were kids. I remember she’d make snow fall in our room, light a campfire with the snap of her fingers…” he trailed off. He stared out the window nostalgically, only to be met with a zombie blob-shaped wake up call.
“We attended Kalendale College for Wizardry together,” he continued, “she was always - and I mean always - top of her class. The professors loved her. But there was a professor there - Sera. She was the Dark Magic professor, before Dark Magic was outlawed across the realm.”
For a realm where Dark Magic was outlawed, Momo sure made a practice of running into it on a daily basis, she thought miserably.
But Sera - that name rang a bell. Momo couldn’t for the life of her remember where she’d heard it. Had it been one of her coworkers at Mallmart? Agh, no - that was Sarah.
Leonardo babbled on, “Sera in particular favored Lione, and they spent nearly all of their time together working on a secret project. Whenever I asked them about it, they’d just giggle and tell me it was too big for me to understand,” he looked out the window at the enormous glob, “now I understand exactly what they meant.”
“That was the project?” Momo pointed towards the monstrosity.
“I think so,” he shuddered, “Sera was fired shortly after the Dark Calamity War began. She all but vanished. No one knows where she went, or if she’s alive. You can imagine that Lione was devastated. She’s been locked up in the Manor ever since, concocting these devilish experiments.”
“And no one has tried to stop her?” Momo said in disbelief.
“Well, none of her experiments have ever been this public,” he said harshly, “until now, she had kept everything contained to the inside of the house. Of course I’ve worried every single day that one would escape and kill one of the Earl’s men, and my sister would be whisked off to jail.”
“That seems… very likely, considering she’s already on his ‘highly suspicious’ list.”
Leonardo’s eyes widened, “she’s what? Suspicious? List? How?”
Momo looked at the glob, and then back to him, “really? How are you surprised right now?”
“Because she’s an absolute dear! Outside of the conjuring and the necromancy - a real pleasure. She even brings the Earl freshly baked goods every Sunday. Sure, sometimes the recipes are a bit out there, but no one should keep their sister from trying out new things…”
“I think this is a prime example of why you should sometimes keep your sister from trying out new things,” Momo glared, pointing to the glob.
“Are you defending her now?”
“Gods, I am, aren’t I?” He buried his head in his hands, “I’m sorry - it’s just conditioned in me. You never quite lose that big brother impulse.”
Momo softened, thinking of her own smaller sibling. Although she's pretty sure she would have locked up Dae-hyun in prison herself if she caught him creating world-ending monster blobs.
But it’s always easy to judge from the outside looking in, she supposed.
“Look,” Momo spoke softly and put an apprehensive hand on the Duke’s shoulder, “the Earl sent me here to investigate her, and this is what I found…” she gestured to the limbs on the floor, “so I suppose I should go tell him, before that monster ravages all the cattle and the Eldergoat milk.”
Leonardo frowned, “I suppose you should. But can you do me a favor? Just one?”
I’ve already done you like eight favors, Momo grumbled internally.
“Sure,” she said aloud, because she was still too nice.
“Tell them my sister has been cursed. That this isn’t her. Anything to make them consider rehabilitating her over executing her,” he begged.
Momo reflected on the woman she had met in the room. Cursed - yes, absolutely, but only out of her own free will. Momo understood her in a way. She had knowingly put a curse on herself, too – 80k in college debt for an art degree, the ‘Dark Magic’ of public school education.
Sometimes a dream can lead you down a path of turmoil - like financial ruin leading you to purchase an undercooked, fatal cheeseburger. It’s an understandable fact of human nature.
“Okay,” she said begrudgingly, “I’ll see what I can do.”
He pulled her into another bone-crushing embrace, “thank you so much,” he cried.
He wiped a tear from his eye and asked, “what can I do for you? How can I repay you for all of your charitability?”
Ah yes, the good part, Momo thought greedily, and then chastised herself for it. Still, she had done quite enough to deserve some sort of reward. It’s the Cookie Jar principle - if you’ve been a good kid (i.e. get good grades), you get a cookie. It was pretty much the ethical guiding light in her mother’s household.
“I accept payment in enchanted items, gold, or spells,” Momo said quietly, still a bit shy in asking for something in return.
“Oh, wonderful, I have all three in abundance!” he clapped his hands, “one moment please.”
He slipped into the room, Momo waiting for him in the hallway. Momo could hear murmurs inside the room gradually build into yells, a verbal fight breaking out. While the contents of what was said was lost to the thick walls, Momo could guess it was pretty heated - seeing the state of Leonardo when he returned.
His hair was burnt to a crisp, his face matted with ash.
“I’m sorry to keep you waiting,” he said hoarsely. In his right hand, he was carrying a pair of black riding boots, “I am equally sorry to tell you that I failed in my mission to compensate you. Lione wouldn’t let us give anything away to the ‘experiment ruiner’. Still, I grabbed these…”
He handed the boots to Momo, who took them gratefully. They were a beautiful shade of black - as all shades of black were - and lined with golden threads. She quickly slipped them onto her feet to try them on. They were a bit snug, but Momo could still wiggle her toes well enough.
⟡ You have equipped [Lione’s Riding Boots (LVL 4)]. ⟡An avid equestrian, Lione Baumfreund crafted these boots at the age of sixteen so she could glide across the fields with ease. Wearing them grants the user a [Friendly Affinity] with horses, as well as +3 in DEX.
“Lione rides horses?” Momo asked, feeling immediately lighter on her feet.
Momo had never ridden a horse - but she was happy to replace her worn down clogs with just about anything, especially a nice pair of black boots.
“She did ride horses,” he sighed, “it was one of her many hobbies before Sera got her talons in her. What I wouldn’t do to give that necro woman a piece of my mind…”
Momo’s mind turned around the word necro, puzzle pieces suddenly clicking into place. She did know that name from somewhere. Sera was one of the other excalibur necromancers that Valerica had mentioned. The [Necropriest].
Momo immediately disliked her. What a twisted woman, to turn a naive young girl seeking motivation and mentorship into a wicked necromancer.
She was so glad she ended up with Valerica instead.