Saturday Special from the Vaults: Dragons over Europe

This article appeared in InQuest, a now-defunct magazine that focused on games and game reviews–originally, when I wrote for it ca. 1996, only on collectible card games. This story was based on the premise that creatures from Dominia, one of the multiple parallel worlds in the card game Magic: The Gathering, invaded Earth in the past, so I guess you could call it alternate history! It was fun to write, anyway: it’s kind of like a science column written around a complete made-up “discovery.”

One other fun note: the scientists quoted are real scientists, and the quotes are real, too. They all graciously agreed to provide expert commentary for this obviously fictional “science” article.

Bob Rubman didn’t expect to make an earth-shaking when he plunged into the warm waters of the Adriatic on August 14, 1986. The young American skin-diver only expected to see the wreck of a Roman trading ship, a few amphorae, nothing spectacular.

Instead he found a skull, a very odd skull: a skull, astonished archaeologists eventually had to admit, that had belonged to…a merman.

When the incontrovertible evidence appeared in respected scientific journals, hundreds of similar discoveries came to light, bones and artifacts that had been hidden away for years by scientists and non-scientists fearful of ridicule. Now, almost a decade after Rubman’s dive, a picture is emerging of life in the Dark Ages that bears little resemblance to that drawn by history and science before now.

The key to this new version of history is the Karlsberg Bestiary, discovered just last year deep beneath a German castle. The pictures and descriptions of animals it contains correspond in startling fashion to the new archaeological findings.

The first few pages of the bestiary are badly damaged, so that only fragments of text can be deciphered. They read, “In the Year of Our Lord…strange creatures from a far land descended upon us. Dragons and giants stalked the heights, and the forests filled with…Baron Karlsberg spoke with…name of the Land from which these monsters came: Dominia.”

Scientists have thus dubbed the arrival of these strange creatures The Dominian Influx. The information in the bestiary, archaeological findings and current understanding of ecology and physiology indicate the Dark Ages were even darker than we thought.

The Dominian Influx must have initially created a huge imbalance in the ratio of predators to prey, for most of the creatures described in the Karlsberg Bestiary are predatory. Dr. Mark Brigham, a biologist at the University of Regina in Saskatchewan, Canada, says that there is usually only one predator for every 10 animals of roughly the same size. The Influx upset that ratio.

With huge predators suddenly unleashed on a relatively small area of Earth, it was not a good time to be a deer, a boar, a rabbit, a sheep–or a shepherd. We know that Europe’s population crashed at various time throughout the Dark Ages; although the Black Death is usually blamed, it may well be that death actually came in a variety of colors, shapes and sizes.

Which is not to say that the Black Death did not claim its share: the Karlsberg Bestiary lists among the new arrivals giant Plague Rats, which must have immediately taken their time-honored place in the squalid cities, spreading pestilence.

With prey vanishing, the arriving creatures could either starve, eat each other, or relocate. (It’s no coincidence that the Perled Unicorn, a beautiful creature which arrived with the others, quickly disappeared; to the large predators it was just horsemeat with a built-in toothpick.)

So the creatures of the Influx spread across Europe, seeking out their ideal habitats.

To the cool, rocky peaks of Europe’s mountains migrated such creatures as the Hill Giants and the Gray Ogres, intelligent, man-shaped beings of incredible height and strength; the Roc of Kher Ridges, a bird of such enormous height it could lift a war-horse in each talon; the War Mammoth, a creature long extinct on Earth; and the rarely seen Serra Angel, which spent most of its time gazing longingly at the sky as though homesick.

The Alps became the home of the Hurloon Minotaurs, bull-headed men with a love of battle and, according to the bestiary, remarkable singing voices that echoed up and down the valleys of the Alps, drastically increasing the frequency of avalanches.

The giants, ogres and rocs had good reason to head for cooler climates; their huge size made them vulnerable to overheating. Dr. Neal Smatresk, Professor and Chair of the Department of Biology at the University of Texas at Arlington, noted that ordinarily, giants should have no more trouble than a normal-sized human maintaining their body temperature, because larger creatures have slower metabolic rates than small ones. “However,” he added, “if they got real energetic, which I don’t think they could do for a real long period of time, they could employ the traditional methods of sweating or taking a plunge in a nice cold lake. The sensible thing to do would be to live in a somewhat colder climate, or a place where there were nice, deep, cold lakes.”

A roc would have preferred the heights not only for the cool climate, but also as a jumping-off place for flight–a means of conserving energy. Until the existence of the Roc and some of the other flying creatures pictured in the bestiary came to light, scientists put the upper limit to flight at 12 kilograms. “Some pterosaurs (flying dinosaurs) were considerably bigger than that,” Dr. Brigham noted, “but they soared, they didn’t actually flap to fly. They couldn’t take off from the ground; they had to jump off a cliff.”

The roc’s ability to fly despite its large size is one example of the apparent ability of many of the creatures of the Dominian Influx to perform seemingly impossible feats. The most current theory in the on-going debate as to how they did this holds that they were able to tap a mysterious source of energy unavailable to ordinary Earth animals.

The Shivan Dragons apparently sought out high launching-points for the same reason as the rocs, but they congregated on lower, warmer ridges and desert mesas.

The reason is simple, according to Dr. Betty Juergensmeyer, Professor of Biology at Judson College in Elgin, Illinois. “Reptiles are cold-blooded: they have to sit out in the sun and warm up before they can do much,” she said. Desert heights are ideal for sunbathing.

This habit undoubtedly brought dragons into conflict with two other creatures who liked the same habitat: the Mesa Pegasus and the astounding Granite Gargoyles.

“A dragon would probably think a pegasus would be fairly tasty,” Dr. Juergensmeyer noted. Only by forming flying herds to defend themselves did the flying horses avoid the fate of the Perled Unicorn.

Granite Gargoyles were apparently a silicon-based life-form. Unlike carbon-based life-forms (everything else on Earth), a silicon-based creature would not have to eat; instead, Dr. Juergensmeyer said, it would probably be solar-powered, soaking up heat to meet its energy needs. Unfortunately, the best places for soaking up heat were often already taken by a sunning dragon, which must have led to some epic battles…usually won, no doubt, by the larger, stronger dragon, which must have then been frustrated by its inability to eat its fallen foe.

The gargoyles weren’t the only silicon-based life-forms to appear in the Dominian Influx. On the desert floor, and elsewhere, dwelt Earth Elementals, massive, slow-moving creatures made of stone, and highly territorial. However, they and the other Elementals the Bestiary describes–Air Elementals, Time Elementals, Water Elementals–played a role in the ecosystem more akin to that of weather, which may wreak havoc but then goes away again, then to that of an ordinary predator or prey species. Drawing on the same unknown source of energy that enabled rocs to fly, elementals existed outside the food chain–as did the Djinn, usually also found in the desert.

In the desert, few humans came in contact with the Dominian creatures. The mountains, too, were sparsely inhabited, and the few people that lived there must have fled when the rocs and giants and ogres arrived, and especially when the minotaurs started singing.

But they weren’t much safer in the wooded valleys, where the Craw Worm lurked, sometimes quietly sunning itself in forest glades, but crashing through the trees with incredible speed (and deafening sound) when in pursuit of prey, which was basically anything that moved. The Craw Worm ruled whatever forest it invaded, quickly driving humans and most other creatures into other valleys or, in the case of humans, into walled cities and stout castles.

Other perils also lurked in the forest. The Thicket Basilisk could turn its enemies into stone…a purely defensive ploy, Dr. Brigham said, “unless you can eat rock. I don’t know anything that can.”

Dr. Smatresk noted that the ability of the basilisk is reminiscent of that of the fire salamander, which sprays a highly potent neurotoxin up to two metres, into the eyes or mouth of its attacker. Its strong defensive ability probably also explains why the basilisk evolved extra legs, which might be good for climbing but would actually slow the creature down. “Most really fast animals minimize ground contact,” Dr. Smatresk pointed out–but the basilisk’s defensive capabilities meant it had no need for speed.

In the forest you could also be unlucky enough to run into Giant Spiders, massive arachnids that might have devastated entire countries if not for the fact that “the muscle mass to move something like that is enormous, so they’d be very, very slow,” as Dr. Smetresk pointed out. “They wouldn’t have the same ferocity and energetic movement that (ordinary spiders) have.” Instead, they probably contented themselves with spinning vast webs, creating fairly permanent areas of danger that intelligent creatures, at least, could avoid.

Most spiders, of course, eat insects, but at least one species of insect mentioned in the bestiary would have been smart enough to avoid any spider’s web The Killer Bees, which the bestiary claims devastated whole villages of humans in a crusade to free their enslaved kinfolk from the honey hives, are said to have carried swords and shields during their attacks, although, as Dr. Juergensmeyer commented, “With their tails, they need those? I would think bees would have enough weapons without swords!”

The bees weren’t the only intelligent denizens of the forest. Others, which probably drove out the giant spiders whenever they could, were the Ironroot Treefolk: intelligent, mobile trees. It’s not as strange as it sounds, according to Dr. Smatresk. “There are plant communication systems that work via electrical conduction,” he said. With the right kind of cells, those communication systems could develop into something analogous to our nervous system.

The Ironroot Treefolk were probably no more taken with tree-chopping humans than the Killer Bees were with the honey-sucking ones–and so humans were also driven from the forests, no doubt with the additional help of the Scryb Sprites, tiny, winged humanoids for whom some country folks still leave an overnight bowl of milk.

Humans fleeing the forests had to hope their path did not take them through the swamps, for here lurked some of the nastiest of the strange new creatures, including the Fungusaur, a bizarre creature that became stronger every time it was injured. Naturally, that made it highly aggressive; getting injured was its best offense.

This is another creature that drew on an unknown source of energy. In fact, regenerating and growing stronger at the same time would require an “infinite energy source,” Dr. Smatresk said, because losing tissue means losing an enormous amount of energy, too. That’s one reason why regenerated tails and limbs on Earth amphibians are usually “not-very-good copies of what was there before.”

In the swamps, too, lurked two more of those strange creatures that lie outside the ordinary realm of ecology: the Nightmare, described as a terrifying horse with fiery mane and hooves, and the Bog Wraith, a ghostlike figure that, the bestiary says, murdered many an unfortunate traveler.

There are other ghostlike creatures in the bestiary that also lie outside the bounds of normal biological science. What are we to make, for instance, of the Drudge Skeletons, dead bones that knitted themselves together and took up arms? Or the Phantom Monster, whose appearance spelled doom for whole villages, according to the Bestiary, but which apparently had no physical substance at all?

For the Sengir Vampire, perhaps, more can be said scientifically, for of course there are already creatures on Earth that make a meal of blood: vampire bats. Vampires were in an enviable position among the creatures of the Influx: all the other creatures were their prey. Although mammalian blood was preferred (it probably tastes better; as Dr. Juergensmeyer pointed out, whereas mammalian red blood cells don’t have nuclei, the red blood cells of other types of creatures do), they could feed on any creature.

Dr. Brigham, whose specialty is bats, noted that two of three known vampire bat species actually spend more time feeding on birds than on mammals, and they have been seen to feed on reptiles. And, he noted, “in terms of the fat and the carbohydrates and all that (the vampire) needs, I think blood is an excellent meal.”

Even walled cities were no protection from these dread creatures. Indeed, it was a difficult time to be a human. Trade almost stopped; few people dared travel the roads. Agriculture became a dangerous activity. And Plague Rats were a constant threat.

It was, however, a good time to be a Carrion Ant.

Coastal cities had an advantage in that they had access to fish–but even the seas had been infested with the creatures of the Influx, as Bob Rubman proved when he picked up that mermaid skull.

Merfolk managed to extract the oxygen they needed from water–an impressive feat, because water, Dr. Smetresk pointed out, holds 20 to 30 times less oxygen per volume than air. He believes the merfolk had no lungs at all, but huge amounts of gill tissue in their extra-large chests, through which they rammed vast quantities of water. In addition, he said, their blood must have been particularly good at capturing oxygen and releasing it to the tissues.

Tales of mermaids exist the world over, so it may well be that these creatures still roam our oceans. If so, Dr. Juergensmeyer and Dr. Smetrask both speculated, their days may be numbered: they must be very sensitive to pollution.

“You’ve got to bring in water, parasites and all kinds of gunk from outside into this very delicate area,” Dr. Smetresk said. “It would have to be their Achilles heel.”

Tales of Sea Serpents also exist all over the world, and so this sea-going version of the Craw Worm, too, may still roam the ocean, having remained behind when almost all the rest of the Dominian creatures disappeared as mysteriously as they appeared, some three centuries after the Influx, as though in answer to a sudden summons.

Whether merfolk and sea serpents heard the call or not, one creature definitely did, and left our oceans forever–for which we can be grateful.

Leviathan was so huge it is impossible to even say what its length might have been. It could only exist in the oceans, where, Dr. Juergensmeyer noted, it didn’t face some of the same problems as land creatures, which have to be concerned about the ability of their bones to bear their own weight, if they get too big.

Leviathan, like today’s large whales (mere minnows by comparison) probably migrated through the world’s oceans, north to feed in rich waters teeming with plankton and fish; south to calve (because although Leviathan was too large to ever get cold, a baby Leviathan might not have been).

Wherever Leviathan went, it would have left behind a marine wasteland, Dr. Smatresk said. “Obviously they’d deplete an ecosystem pretty fast.”

Leviathan could have scoured whole islands clean of life just with the waves of its passing, destroyed the fisheries on which beleaguered towns depended for food, sunk entire fleets without even knowing it had hit them…and yet, like all the rest of the Dominian creatures, it vanished.

Now that scientists have finally begun to accept that the Dominian creatures really existed, and to piece together the picture of the world as it was during their brief sojourn here, one question continues to haunt them: “What happened to them?”

Perhaps the flip side of that question is even more disturbing:

“What if they come back?”

(The image: A merman from Magic: The Gathering.)


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