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The Becoming™ – The Caretakers

Folks,

Happy Friday (or Good Friday to those of you who celebrate this day!) to everybody. It’s been a long and highly productive week at CSE (more on this in the next update) and I want to get the weekend started off with a new Becoming™ story. This is a “bonus” story in that I hadn’t expected to write it and because it is the first piece that was “developmentally edited” by Max, our writing intern. What developmentally editing means to us is taking a story and well, making it a lot better. This piece marks the first that Max has edited in that manner and well, he did a heck of a job with it. Besides simply editing it for grammar, typos, etc., he added his own new material to the story and the result is a much more robust and interesting tale than I originally wrote.

Because this was a bonus story and possible race (we haven’t reached our stretch goal yet), I didn’t add the usual Banes and Boons stuff but we do have two excellent pieces of concept art from the concept team of Sandra and Michelle at the conclusion of this post.

As always, I hope that you enjoy the Becoming tale of the race of Caretakers of the Tuatha De Danann!

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The Becoming™ – The Caretakers

It was the time of Shadow’s Delight, the blackest part of the night. There were no moons out. It was dark as a secret within the tall cluster of stones that marked the sacred circle of Eagla Portach, the eagle bog, where the caretakers known as the fir bog hold council.

They felt the call rising through their feet and up into their veins, a sense of danger from deep in the soft plant matter that formed the bog. They felt the moon coming, the moon that shone bright blue. It would be an omen that had not been seen for a decade. As they gathered in the circle, heeding the call that ran through the bog, their eyes met in the deep darkness and they nodded to one another. Shuffling nervously among the massive monoliths, the elders agreed this blue moon foretold great calamity to the Realm.

The elders took a deep breath in unison and dug their feet deep into the bog. Their minds reached out like roots, hesitant at first, then joining and twisting together to form a single consciousness. Their shared memory dug deep into the past as a moon rose, blue as a forget-me-not.

The circle of fir bog remembered. They remembered the last time the blue moon had risen, ten years ago, when a terrible war tore across the land and nearly destroyed the Realm at its very roots. They remembered the blue moon years before that, when the titanic Veilstorm, the Malevolence, threatened Eagla Portach itself. They also remembered the blue moon whose portent they had interpreted wrongly, that brought change but no destruction. It would be difficult to make the High King heed their warning, after that mistake; but still the messenger eagle must be sent. It was the solemn duty of the fir bog elders to read the omens of the future, and warn the High King when the Realm was in danger.

To read the sign of this blue moon correctly, the elders knew they must remember farther back, back to the first blue moon that had risen over the bog, back to the moon that had signalled the birth of their race. The fir bog remembered their forefather, a human man. He had lived in a house of grey stones that rose over green hills far from the bog. In memory, they walked the halls and familiar corridors, passed under the raised portcullis, stomped over the drawbridge that covered the moat, and wended their way to the bog, just as Eochaid mac Eirc had done so many years ago. They became him one more time.

 

Eochaid was worried. No one else in High King Rindal’s council was interested in rebuilding the Realm, devastated as it was by the First Breaking. They all would rather argue, or even come to blows over imagined insults. Eochaid loved a good tussle as much as any of them, and could hold his own in a fight. But these were not good tussles. These were just attempts to bully others into agreement, and left bad feeling and resentment among the High King’s council.

One autumn day, when the sky was dark with clouds and an ominous heaviness hung in the air, Eochaid came home to find a message waiting for him. Written on the pale, pounded parchment of the Council, it instructed Eochaid to withdraw his sword from the voting circle and leave the castle forever. The crudely written letter went on to describe the horrific events that would follow if Eochaid did not comply: his daughter raped and murdered; his wife stripped and thrown in the river; and his legs burned off until he was ‘short as a luchorpán.’

When Eochaid showed the chilling note to his wife Teia , she pulled out her throwing knives. She wanted to battle the members of the council one by one until she found the message’s author. Eochaid was nearly sliced to pieces when he tried to convince her to run. “You are a coward and a skulking rat!” she cried, waving the wicked blades at him.

Anxiously, Eochaid ran his fingers through his hair. “Our enemies in the Council are strong, Teia. And with Obdgen’s brute force, they are only growing stronger. I see what is coming. I hear the footsteps of death at our door. I know you can defend yourself, my dear–” He eyed the blades as she loomed over him. “But we cannot protect little Tiu forever. She deserves to grow up free and happy, not hidden away within walls. I would not wish that kind of safety on her. Besides, I am tired of warring with the fools on the Council that want to place the crown on my head. I have no desire to continue this life of politics and greed. We have hunted in the Móin Alúine, and know its secret paths. Let us go there, to the Bog of Allen, and build a new life.”

Teia stared down at him, fierce tears showing in her eyes. “I know you are right, Eochaid. I would rather cut them open until I found their secrets; but for the sake of Tiu’s future, we shall do as you say. We will be safe. But swear this to me, now and forever: If either one of us ever discovers who sent the letter and gets the chance to kill this man, we take it. No matter the consequences. Swear this on your love for me.”

“I do so swear.”

Teia bit her lip. “Swear it on your heart and mine, and may they twist and shatter should you ever break this oath.”

Eochaid nodded, and did not speak the other thought in his heart. He knew Obdgen had to be behind the threats. One day, when his family was safe, he would fulfill his oath to Teia.

 

Like everything else after the First Breaking, the Móine Alúine had changed its nature greatly, and become one of the most haunted and mysterious places in the Realm. The forest that surrounded the bog was nearly impenetrable, and strange mists filled with voices hung in the low places. However, to Eochaid and Teia it felt like home, safe and secret from the High King’s council.

They built a house of fallen wood and peat slabs, all woven together with strong ivy. There they settled, to raise their daughter as a woodchild and a warrior. Tiu grew wild and carefree, and though she had none of the shrewd suspicion of a city child, she had the warmest heart and the gentlest touch of any creature in the forest.

When Tiu told her parents that she had made friends in the deep bog, they smiled at her imaginary companions and told her to learn their magic. Tiu would bring home little gifts from her mysterious friends, such as wooden amulets carved from heartwood, or daisy chains that stayed fresh forever. Eochaid and Teia thought little of it, and assumed that Tiu was making the gifts herself, so they hung them on the door for luck.

The bog’s deep magic protected them from the worst of the Veilstorms, and the little family was safe and happy for several years.

One fall evening, scuds of clouds hung low in the sky, heralding a Veilstorm of epic proportions. There was a hint of winter’s chill in the air, and Eochaid and Teia sat inside by the warm hearthfire. Teia was knitting on the well-worn armchair, while Eochaid sharpened her knives for her. The crackling of the flames over the pungent peat bricks and the whisking noise of his whetstone were the only sounds as the couple watched one of the moons rise over the bog mist through the window.

Strangely enough, the moon was blue, blue as the wildflowers that bloomed in the bog at springtime. This was far from the most unusual event that accompanied a Veilstorm, but something about the blue light that spread over the Móine Alúine seemed to herald change, a crisis in the making. Eochaid glanced at his wife where she faced the fire with her knitting and nodded, silently agreeing that it was past time for Tiu to come inside. He stood up and stretched, about to call through the window when he was interrupted.

A loud, peremptory knock on the door broke into the quiet pause before the storm. Eochaid and Teia looked at one another. This wouldn’t be the first time a traveler had come to their home in the bog, seeking shelter from a coming storm. Still, Eochaid slipped one of his wife’s knives into his pocket before he went to answer the door.

Outside were three huge men wearing the armor and livery of the High King. Their broad smiles glinted blue in the moonlight. Eochaid smiled in return and swung the door open, shaking the amulets and flowers that hung there.

Before he could greet them, the men drew their hands from behind their backs to reveal three naked blades. Before Eochaid could draw his knife, before he could even cry out, the first one punched his throat with the sword’s crossguard and rushed inside.

One came up behind Teia and grabbed her hair, smashing her head against the end-table. Eochaid managed to choke out her name before the other two massive soldiers picked him up by the shoulders and pinned him against the stone mantle above the fireplace. Eochaid struggled for air and kicked as the flames licked at the backs of his legs.  A smell of seared flesh filled the room.

“Teia, are you alright?” Eochaid coughed, but there was no answer from the bundle on the floor.

“Who are you?” he demanded. “Why have you done this terrible thing?”

The men just grinned savagely in answer.

A soft clinking announced someone else at the door. Eochaid watched with tears of rage in his eyes as a familiar figure appeared in the doorway, outlined in blue by the full moon outside. He too wore the livery of the High King, though his tabard was embroidered with glittering thread that looked like gold.

“Bastard!” exclaimed Eochaid as a familiar face came into the flickering firelight. Obdgen had grown a beard, and his ruthless smirk was shadowed as he stared into Eochaid’s eyes. The smaller man continued, “I shall kill you for this! And if my Teia is dead, I promise that your death will not be so swift.”

“Bravely spoken,” laughed Obdgen through his beard. “But I would expect nothing else from you.”

“Release me, and I will still kill you,” Eochaid spat back, “But I know you are too cowardly.”

“You know you are the coward,” Obdgen replied. “You were not blessed with my strong will, and now is when you find how much that cost you.” With that, the big man sat in the wicker seat by the fire and thoughtfully warmed his hands near Eochaid’s legs. He seemed to enjoy the smell of seared flesh that hung in the room.

“Now,” Obdgen said as he leaned back , “I have a choice to offer. I would gladly fight, but I warn you, Eochaid: You will pay a terrible price. Or do one simple deed for me and I’ll set you and your family free, unharmed. Perhaps everyone will survive.”

“What is that deed?” asked Eochaid through gritted teeth.

“You will return with me to the city, swear your allegiance to the High King, and confess your guilt for all your crimes.” Obdgen’s dark eyes glittered as he watched Eochaid’s legs twitch in the fire’s heat.

“Crimes? What crimes?” exclaimed Eochaid, “I have done nothing! Even in the city, I was the only member of the council with a sense of shame.”

“Shame?” said Obdgen. “Shame on you indeed. You’re forgetting all of those duels you fought with members of the council, the threats you made against the High King, the bribes you paid, and most shameful of all, the unnatural relations you’ve had with your daughter. Poor girl. We’d best get back to the city soon, so you can put all the rumors to rest.”

“I still have friends on the Council. Is Rindal still the High King?” Eochaid asked. “Surely he will remember me!”

“Alas,” said the man, “Rindal was declared mad and had to abdicate. I am the High King now. These fine fellows are among my most trusted men, you see.” He grinned like the victor of a great battle.

For a moment, Eochaid just stared at the bundle on the floor that was Teia. She wasn’t moving at all. He remembered his oath to her, and felt his heart knotting in his chest. Tiu was still out there somewhere. “I’ll never swear allegiance to you,” Eochaid declared. “Release me, and we’ll settle this between us.”

“Are you willing to pay the price?” Obdgen inquired, smiling ever wider.

“Any price, you bastard,” said Eochaid slowly, as the knot inside him twisted harder. “Let’s get this over with, so I can tend to my Teia.”

“Good. I’d much rather duel you,” grunted the High King. He nodded to the man who had thrown Teia, and the big brute walked out of the room. Obdgen drew his sword and nodded to the other men, who released Eochaid.

Eochaid rubbed his legs where the fire had burned them, then stood straight and looked up at Obdgen.  “Let me see to my wife. I’ll take my sword and meet you outside.“

“You may tend to her briefly, but you will not have a sword,” said the High King, “As I said, you have to pay the price.”

“You really are a cowardly bastard, aren’t you?” said Eochaid, his heart sinking. It felt like a lump of wood inside his chest.

“A bastard, but not as cowardly as you,” chuckled the High King through his beard. “Which of us was too meek to reach for the crown when it was offered?”

Limping, Eochaid bent over Teia. He sighed in relief when he saw his wife was still breathing, although she was going to have a bump like a goose egg. He brushed aside her auburn hair and left a quick kiss on her forehead. It was time to fulfill his oath.

A warning growl from one the soldiers kept him from reaching for the wall where his sword hung. Reluctantly, Eochaid walked out of the cottage and into the light rain that was just beginning to fall. Everything glittered blue in the light of the moon: the clouds above, the wet earth, the eyes and teeth of the ruthless guards, and the thick coat of mail on the High King, which matched his two-handed sword.

Eochaid felt the hard knot inside him again, throbbing with hatred. This was not going to be a fair fight. His best chance lay in his lighter weight and superior footwork. Perhaps he could dance around the High King’s blows and wear him down. Eochaid patted his pocket where the knife lay hidden; one slip, and Obdgen would find Teia’s oath fulfilled with one of her own blades.

“I know you’re afraid,” Obdgen broke into his thoughts, pointing his blue-tipped blade at Eochaid. “Just don’t think you can run away from me here, the way you ran to hide in the forest. If you try to wear me down with your coward’s tricks, it will cost you more than you know.”

Eochaid blinked through the rain that spattered down his face, staring woodenly at his opponent.

“No answer? I knew you were too cowardly to come to grips, so I have another surprise for you.” Obdgen shook the water from his beard and smiled. “Where is your lovely daughter tonight?”

Eochaid’s furious heart jolted with fear. “What have you done to her?

“Me? Nothing. My loyal man, however, has a sick sense of humor. He is drowning her in the deepest water of the bog. Hopefully she is still intact…but I couldn’t blame him if he tasted her sweet honey.”

“You will die for this tonight. And I will save my daughter. This I swear by the old gods and the storms,” said Eochaid, his breath steaming in the cold rain as he stepped toward Obdgen.

“Then you better hurry, Eochaid,” said Obdgen as he shifted his grip on the massive sword. “The longer it takes to kill me, the deeper into the muck she goes. Especially with the extra weight she carries.”

“What do you mean by that?” Eochaid spat and slid closer.

“When we found the girl, there were some creatures dancing with her. We slew them and tied their corpses to her legs. Like you, she is probably beginning to wish she hadn’t made so many little friends,” said the High King.

Before Obdgen finished his words, Eochaid charged him like an enraged boar. However, the armed warrior seemed to expect his attack, and slipped to one side. As Eochaid passed, the king delivered him a swift slash across the midsection.

The king’s men laughed at that, and the High King smiled at his well-executed maneuver. Eochaid coughed, recovering from the blow as he tried to gather his thoughts. The pain of the wound was as nothing to the hatred burning in his chest, knotting his heart. As the storm thundered above, he turned back to Obdgen and roared. It was a guttural sound, more like the noise of an injured beast than a man.

Obdgen only laughed again. The rain was getting heavier, and had almost washed Eochaid’s blood clean already. The blue glow still permeated everything in the clearing.

“You never had a chance, Eochaid. With or without a weapon, in the rain or the dry, I am mightier. Kneel and admit it!” Obdgen’s mail creaked as he lowered his blade once more, pointing it straight at Eochaid’s wounded chest. “Surrender now, and I’ll send one of my men to see if your daughter still lives. We’ll comfort her. After a few nights with us, I’ll set the girl free and give her a gold coin to thank her.”

Holding his bloody stomach, Eochaid stared into the Obdgen’s eyes. As despicable as the offer was, Eochaid knew he had no other option. He fell to his knees before the High King.

“You give up so well. Just as you always have,” said the High King. “Now, I’m a man of my word, so…” He turned to bark an order. But in a flash of lightning, he saw the clearing was empty. His men had vanished into the Veilstorm. Obdgen leaned forward, peering into the rain.

As though he had expected this, Eochaid pushed up from the muddy earth and pulled out the knife in one smooth motion. He leapt into the air and onto the High King, stabbing and slashing. The razor edge slit open Obdgen’s mouth to his ear, spraying blood into the night.

With a gargled yell of pain and surprise, Obdgen swatted Eochaid away, throwing the lighter man to the ground. The look of fear in his eyes warmed Eochaid’s knotted heart as the High King tried to stop the bleeding with his mailed hand. For a moment, their eyes locked in pain and rage. Then, without a word, Obdgen turned and ran into the forest.

Eochaid rolled painfully to his feet, intending to chase the man down and slit his throat, but hesitated. He was caught between his oath and his wife and daughter. The knot of hatred in his chest twisted tighter and tighter as he screamed in frustration. He knew what he had to do. After a moment, Eochaid turned toward the bog to save Tiu. Holding the still-bleeding wound, he scrambled over the roots and moss, slippery in the storm.

The Móine Alúine holds many secrets, and not all the things that lie within its mists are friendly. However, as the storm’s power began to reach a fever pitch, every creature was crawling to its deepest hiding place. Eochaid was left alone as he bounded from knoll to knoll, following the evidence of the High King’s guards tramping feet even in the dim blue light. His own feet were cut and torn by stones and fallen branches, but Eochaid paid no heed and sped onward, faster than he had ever traveled through the Bog of Allen.

He reached the place where dark waters gathered, a deep pit hung about with twisted trees and long vines. Here and there, flowers blossomed bright in the darkness, and old stumps stooped, covered with moss like the rounded shoulders of old men. There were signs of butchery on the bank: bits of broken wood and crushed flowers in the mud, mutilated fingers in the puddles, and even a strangely shaped ear lay severed on the ground.

Eochaid took a deep breath. His chest burned with the wound and the oath of hatred he had sworn. Then he dove into the rain-splashed water.

The scum clung to Eochaid as he dove, and in the pitch-black liquid he flailed desperately, hoping to brush against Tiu. Forced to come up for air, he dove back down again, tearing his wound open carelessly. Each time his lungs gave out before he found anything.

The storm roared all around, and its magic and wind tore at the surface of the bog, whipping it into a scummy froth. Feeling his strength leave him even as the Malevolence reached its greatest intensity, Eochaid cried out to the heavens. He choked through the rain, the swampwater, and the blood in his mouth to swear a new oath, an oath of desperation. The magic of the storm howled in his face as he gave up the thought of vengeance, even of survival; all he wanted was to save Tiu, his daughter.

Taking the breath that would surely be his last, Eochaid dove down deep into the bog one more time. At that moment, the blue moon reached the zenith of its arc across the sky, and the Malevolence itself shuddered like a living thing.

Instead of weakening, losing all his breath and strength, Eochaid found himself diving deeper than before. The further he went, the stronger he felt. He had become numb to the pain, he thought to himself, but in truth he was changing.

The pond scum that clung to his skin became his skin; his burned legs became longer and stronger, like hardened wood; and his arms extended like reaching branches. Blinking with new eyes, Eochaid found he could see through the murk. There was his daughter at the very bottom of the pit, floating upright but chained to rocks and tiny mangled bodies. He could not cut the bonds that held her below. Eochaid had to lift her, and he became even larger and stronger, pulling through the water all the way to the surface.

Holding her in huge, gnarled hands, Eochaid laid Tiu’s body on the bank. He felt terror and hope mingled together as he willed her to live, to keep her gentleness and happiness alive in the world. The bodies tied to her were luchorpán, cut to pieces and beyond saving.

It was a long moment, but just as the storm began to lose its force, Tiu stirred. She coughed up black water, vomiting it up in great gushes. Perhaps it was the storm, perhaps it was her father’s desperation, or perhaps it was the sacrifice of her dead friends, the luchorpán, but Tiu would live.

When she was able to open her eyes and look up at the gigantic creature that bent over her, Tiu almost screamed in fear. But she recognized  a familiar look in its eyes. With a child’s intuition, she put up her hand to touch his barklike nose.

“Father?” she said.

Eochaid broke down into tears, great droplets that rolled down his face and splashed onto hers. “Yes, it is me. The storm changed me to save you. Or perhaps it was the moon. It does not matter. You live, Tiu.”

“Thank you, father.” Tiu began weeping as well, and snuffled as she rolled to her feet in the mud and pointed at the small, crumpled bodies on the bank. “We need to bury them.”

Father and daughter dug through the earth and moss that formed the bank where Tiu had played with her friends. They spoke a few words over the luchorpán, and were washed clean by the dying storm.

As they walked back to their cottage to see if Teia was alright, they heard a man’s screams echoing over the bog. Tiu climbed up Eochaid’s gnarled body to listen better. “My friends have found the High King,” she said softly. “He will take a long time to die. Serves him right.”

Eochaid nodded. He wondered what Teia would say about his oath, and he patted the place in his chest where the knot had been. The flesh there was hard and twisted, like the whorls of an old tree. He knew his wife would say he had held on to his anger for too long. To this day, when a fir bog turns bitter with the harshness of the world, they say that one is marked by curls and knots of the heart.

Many years later, when the blue moonrise foretold calamity once again, Teia and Eochaid joined hands on the bank of the deep bog. Together, they repeated their wedding vows and stepped into the dark water.

There they lived for the rest of their lives, and their daughter grew tall and strong, marked by the bog as they were. They learned that so long as their feet touched the sacred places of the forest and swamp, they were one with each other like roots intertwined. They learned to read omens that warned of danger, and the portents that told of change. Above all, they learned that on any given night, souls desperate for change were called to the bog by its great and terrible secrets, waiting deep down in the peat moss. And as those souls found a new beginning in this place, their race multiplied, growing in power and collective wisdom.

As the circle of the fir bog pulled away from their deepest memory, they chanted the words of growing, which spread their senses out into the world. The cold light of the blue moon shone down on their shapes, tall and straight or bent and gnarled, deep in meditation. They were more than caretakers of the bog; their responsibility to their Realm and their world was greater than those who did not share their burden could imagine.

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Good eh? He did a great job with it didn’t he? As to our aforementioned concept art, here is a piece that shows a male and female Caretaker.

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The second piece is concept piece of a final stage Caretaker walking through a forest.

 

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More great work by our two overworked and awesomely talented concept artists. While they were doing these two pics there were also doing other things, some of which will be revealed next month.

I hope you enjoyed this update. There will be another update showing up shortly. So stay tuned…

-Mark