(Technical write up at the end after the draft sketches for those interested.)
Dragons! There’s no better shorthand for fantasy than dragons. Personally, I have always been fond of dragons in their role as ultimate antagonist–bigger than you, older than you, stronger than you, smarter than you, obsessive, powerful, and deeply malicious. While there is definitely a case to be made for subverting this classical European style villainous dragon, I think there’s a lot of fun to be had in playing the trope straight. Delivering on expectations up front makes it easier to play around with other aspects of the story, since it takes less time for the audience to understand what’s happening.
You may have guessed that a dragon will play an antagonistic role in the Three Realms Serial when it relaunches in Summer 2021, and you would be correct. With that in mind, how the dragons of Vanoree look, act and function was the first step in restructuring and polishing the setting. Right from the beginning there was an important choice to make: Would Vanoree’s dragons be more realistic, or more horrific?
My general rule for the world building of the Three Realms is to “handwave” as little as possible. Not everything needs to be completely realistic (there is magic, after all), but if something has unrealistic properties then those need to have some purpose or function. If my dragons were going to be horrific, then the impossibility of their flight, size, and fire breathing would add to their terror. If they were to be more realistic then I would need to work out their dimensions to be as reasonable as possible. I wasn’t sure which direction I wanted to take the beasts.
Part of the fun of Vanoree’s magic system for me as a writer is “Corporeal Magic,” this is essentially chemistry, physics, math & statistics, biology, and engineering. I find that, many times, things that actually exist are just as (if not more) awe inspiring than things we creative types imagine. To that end I’ve made a sort of game out of blending my own imaginings with actual processes and phenomena–to the characters in the story, it’s all magic, but the “real stuff” might be fun easter eggs for someone. So figuring out fun ways to make the dragon work was an enticing puzzle, but not one that I was sure needed to be undertaken.
I put it to a poll online, and was fortunate enough to have received feedback from science communicator Kyle Hill, and fantasy author Shad Brooks. Between their comments and the results of the poll I was pushed in the direction of realism. This had a ripple effect on the other fantastical creatures of the Three Realms setting, as I resolved that any flesh-and-blood creature native to Vanoree (the mortal world) would have to obey the laws of physics and biology (visitors for the Realms of Mehnoree, Faynoree, and Lyrnoree have their own rules).
Designing the dragon itself, from this point, involved researching a number of different topics. I am very thankful for PBS Eons and the various SciShow and Crash Course productions from Complexly on that front, and I’d highly recommend all of them to other writers who need to learn enough about a subject in a short amount of time.
In the end the “realistic” dragon design ended up being more awe inspiring and genuinely interesting than anything I might have been able to come up with off the top of my head. Below you’ll find my draft work as I was figuring out how I wanted the creature to be, and then a more technical write up of how it all works in the final. This information won’t be known to the characters in the story, not in such a direct or absolute fashion (so if you want to figure it out along with them, don’t read after my sign off!). This was a lot of fun to work on, and a great way to start my rework of the Three Realms.
The Three Realms Serial will begin in Summer of 2021, assuming that I survive my Thesis Seminar Class (which has now officially begun!). In the meantime, please continue to join me for insights and updates on the world building and storytelling process for the Realms. If there’s a particular subject you’d like to hear my thoughts on, or you just want to share your own experiences with the writing process please leave a comment below or find me on Twitter @realm_wright
Next month I’ll be talking about the main characters and the broad themes of the serial, and then in March I plan to write about the structure of the Realms and the magic system of the setting, so stay tuned!
Large quadrupedal vertebrate, endemic to the region of Vanoree known in the Kingdom of Melyn as the Smolder Reach, specifically in and around Embercrest Lake. It measures 9m from nose to tail tip; when the pair of dorsal sails are held horizontally the “wingspan” is 11m; dragons have light, hollow bones interwoven with pockets of air and a generally gaunt or emaciated appearance; estimated weight of 200kg.
Dragons do not have the ability to fly by flapping their dorsal sails, they can be held fully vertical, or fully horizontal, but cannot articulate with sufficient speed or power to generate lift. The spines are hollow and made of carotin, secured to the spine by a thick mass of specialized muscle. When held horizontal they allow the creature to glide and, with assistance from their unique thermal abilities, soar for extremely long distances. Once landed, they require a high perch to get back into the air.
Thermal Abilities & Alkali Lake Basking
On the chest, beneath the dorsal spines, on either side of the dragon are gill-like structures which feed into a unique organ system. These fleshy points are host to symbiotic chemosynthetic bacteria matts. Dragons rest and sleep in the highly basic waters of Embercrest Lake and other geothermally fed springs and water features in the Smolder Reach region. Their long swan-like neck, wide nostrils, and the vertical positioning of their dorsal spines all help the animal to breath and vent excess heat and salts from the lake. Special cavities connect secondary nostrils to organs attached to the “gills.” Within these organs the byproducts of the bacteria’s chemosynthesis are gathered, salts are vented upward, while potassium is retained in an oil-like hydrophobic gel.
While in flight, dragons can expel this mixture out from their gills, beneath the wings, where the potassium ignites on contact with Vanoree’s humid air conditions producing artificial thermals that help keep the creature aloft. When threatened on the ground, the dragon can hold its gills shut, forcing the mixture up through the secondary nasal cavity, which projects the mess of sticky pink fire which becomes more excited if doused with water. The lilac color and “unquenchable” nature of the compound are the defining characteristics of “dragon’s fire” to the people of Vanoree.
Using its load of potassium for defense means that the dragon will have a harder time getting back into the air.
Offense & Defense
Aside from the dragon’s fiery breath the creatures possess powerful eagle-like talons and teeth suited for shredding meat. The primary prey animals are short-horned sheep and deer native to the southern plains region of Vanoree. While dragons are powerfully built, they are relatively frail if confronted by blunt force. Piercing and slashing from the claws and teeth of other animals (and from many human weapons) are mitigated by the animal’s hide, which is similar to skin found on the feet of flamingos and penguins. This skin also offers a high degree of thermal resistance, making certain magics and alchemies significantly less effective than they would be against other animals.
Intelligence & Cultural Importance
While they lack the necessary anatomy to speak in human language, they have been known to learn it enough to communicate by written word, and the domestication of short-horned sheep and early herding practices by the ancient Meric people of the plains were adopted from observations of dragons sustainably cultivating sheep herds.
Prior to the Reaving, a mysterious event in 444 PR (Prior to Record) which wiped out Vanoree’s giants and left humanity holding the reigns, dragons were much more common. Some were known to cultivate relationships with human settlements and families. These relationships varied from dragon to dragon, but frequently involved the humans being paid for shepherding services or as liaisons. History preceding the Reaving is largely unknown in-universe, the records being written in Meric Runes and mostly lost to time. Unlike the giants, the Reaving did not actively kill off dragons, but it did render them all sterile. Contemporary wisdom among all three of Vanoree’s main human cultures is that dragons are extinct. The last recorded interaction was a violent encounter between Melyn’s Bronze Legion and a dragon during an expansionist expedition into the Smolder Reach in 67 YR (Year of Record).