Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Why Are Unicorns Not Dragons?

Do the bones of a Golden Dragon gleam?
Most of an Eastern dragon's parts - the head of an ox or camel, ears of a cow or dog, antlers of a stag, neck of a snake, and legs of a horse - add up to a giraffe. The Qilin (closest analog to a unicorn) is also a giraffe. In the West, both were about the size of a horse. Both were indomitable. Yet the one associated with monsoons and wildfires grew into a blend of crocodile, dinosaur and zeppelin while the one carrying abstract notions of incorruptibility and divine vigor got stuck as a kind of prissy antelope.

As an antagonist, this self-righteous ungulate can be a pawn in someone else's scheme, be jealous, try to steal or ruin a person or place or object, try to take over someone else's lair, have a vendetta... all the same passions as a small dragon.

Giraffes are pretty quiet, and Qilin can walk without disturbing even a blade of grass, so I figure a unicorn "passing without trace" is basically silent. That's spooky if you're used to hearing horses' hooves a long way off, especially if you're anticipating spies or ambush. Unicorns (apparently) can teleport in D&D, so a charming one would make an excellent kidnapper, and seeing one by itself doesn't mean it's working alone. Two working together could drop a chimera (or a couple leopards, or whatever seems reasonable) on a target's head and then all teleport away again before the tide turns.

If we accept that unicorns can teleport(?!), then I'm inclined to allow one as huge and ancient as the Beast of Balochistan to "Dimension Door" a cone of unwilling creatures a distance whose falling damage matches a dragon's breath weapon. (I'd also argue for "Mass Suggestion" or "Hypnotic Pattern" in place of Dragon Fear, but some cleric or paladin aura is probably more likely.)

Any sufficiently old, sufficiently mystic animal can elevated to this level. Where they diverge into dragons and unicorns, then, must be their agenda: dragons want to carve out a geopolitical space for themselves, while unicorns carry a divine mandate into the sociomoral space.


Beula's Bones

Pilgrims come to this shrine for weekly healing miracles. On one side stands the skeleton of a great unicorn, fifteen feet high at the shoulder, gilded and encased in a block of solid glass; the skeleton of an equally big dragon stands opposite it, also gleaming and encased in glass. Six regular-sized unicorns were born at the shrine and sometimes revisit it.

What you can learn by...
...magically examining the unicorn skeleton: it's not dead.
...magically examining the dragon skeleton: it's fake.
...inquiring where the six unicorns came from: they hatched from eggs.
...knowledgeably observing the Hydralepardis (see below): must be offspring of a dragon and a leopard.
...inquiring about the shrine's gardens: leopards live there.
...general rumor: [someone befriended by a unicorn] married influentially and soon after bore a child of destiny.
...general rumor: [someone befriended by a unicorn] [acted suspiciously] and then vanished.

The gardens have a reflecting pond which can't be seen from the shrine. A hydralepardis is always lounging next to it, and a "unicorn" is always hiding somewhere nearby, ready to scry and rescue its fellows.


More Dragonified Mammals

Giraffes as Hydralepardis: sometimes a leopard born at the shrine will have six serpentine necks which grow to a towering height. Each neck can carry a soldier (archer, mage, walltopper or commander) twenty or more feet off the ground, and the heads' combined caterwauling can order a military troop as effectively as trumpets and pipes. Roll a d6 each turn: if the d6 indicates a surviving head, that head can use whatever breath weapon is appropriate to the parent dragon. The creature's blood can be used to reattach limbs, and drenching a corpse in it staves off decay.

Elephants as Gravekeepers: they remember the location of every grave in their territory and shepherd simple undead the way humanoids tend sheep. Their language is "Speak with Dead" and pitched so low it's felt instead of heard. They know three other languages, one per trunk, which they speak by sticking a trunk in their mouth. Their cyclopic eye is visible from every direction, its pupil seeing out in every direction. Their shadows float above them and hold them off the ground; their great ears and flippers are for maneuvering, not propulsion.

Hippos as River Spirits: irascible whale-sized creatures who graze on aquatic bioluminescence the way baleen whales eat krill. They pull river barges and live for centuries. It's a terrible omen when one dies, and killing one earns the hate of everyone on the river, but their fats can be processed into lucrative ever-burning oils and mystic perfumes. They burrow into mud during dry or cold months, some hibernating so long they're only found again by someone sinking a well.

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