While in modern times the word “serpent” is treated as a synonym for “snake”, in the world of Midgaheim it has a broader meaning. Including the likes of dragons, basilisks, amphisbaenas, and other oddities, Serpents are a broad taxonomic clade that includes all the missing links between snakes and their monitor lizard ancestors. Some of the most notorious and strange creatures in Midgaheim are included in their ranks, and members of this clade thrive all over the continent. Varied and strange, serpents are some of the most successful arcane creatures in Midgaheim.
Descended from monitor lizards, the common ancestor of all serpents (the “ur serpent”) had some notable distinctions from its forebears. A pair of thick, boney horns crowned its head, while long sails of skin held up by thin osteoderms flanked its torso. These adaptations would be taken in different directions by the serpents to come, as would the lizard’s primitive venom glands. The Ur Serpent’s descendants diverged from each other before the Lost Epoch began, and while the most bizarre Serpents were definitely a product of the Lost Epoch’s magical environment, many of the strange adaptations of the sub-clades got their start before magic came into the world.
There are seven main sub-clades of serpents: Dragons, Hoogahs, Basilisks, Amphisbaenas, Gliding Serpents, Horned Serpents, and True Snakes. While the last group doesn’t require much explanation (as unlike the others, they still exist today), the others are unusual enough to warrant further explanation:
Dragons: believed to be closest to the “Ur Serpent” (though this is a matter of some debate), dragons are one of the most iconic and successful clades of Serpents, and indeed of all Arcane Creatures, on the continent of Midgaheim. While they take on a variety of body types (one clade even broke from traditional tetrapod rules by developing a third pair of limbs), dragons are generally defined by having the following features: a hooked upper lip (despite its beak-like appearance, this lip is flexible), sabre fang canines, at least two cranial horns, ear-like fins (not actually used for hearing), and a bony tail blade (often but not always in the shape of a spade). Dragons also evolved a highly complex set of wings that superficially resemble the fins of a ray-finned fish. No other naturally occurring terrestrial organism has wings with this particular structure, making them distinctly draconic.
Dragons themselves are split into several sub-clades, which are differentiated based on the number and shape of their limbs. This will be explained in more depth in the Dragons Overview chapter of the Midgaheim Bestiary.
Hoogahs: similar to dragons in many respects, hoogahs are also fairly close to the Ur Serpent, with some biologists believing that hoogahs may actually be closer to the primeval serpent ancestor than their draconic cousins. Since they are so similar, many definitions of hoogahs focus on how they differ from dragons. Some of the differences are fairly obvious: hoogahs lack horns, fangs, and a hooked upper lip, all of which are defining traits of a dragon. While a dragon’s tail ends in in a bony spike, a hoogah’s tail ends in a three pronged fork of boneless tendons. Beneath the surface, one would find that a hoogah’s neck is typically far more stiff and rigid than a dragon’s, being composed of far fewer vertebrae. Hoogahs also tend to hold their heads aloft, straight and vertical, while dragons tend to hold their heads out horizontally with a serpentine curve in their neck. Interestingly, hoogahs tend to have large frills above their forelimbs that are vaguely reminiscent of the wings of some dragons. While these frills are useless for flight, they do work as a threat display, and some have compared them to how certain species of non-venomous snakes will imitate the coloration of their toxic kin for safety.
Hoogahs are split into two subclades: ground hoogahs, who lack the power of flight, and kite hoogahs, whose bodies sport massive frills that stretch from their necks to their tail tips, allowing them to glide through the air with marvelous grace. Though they are significantly rarer than their fellow serpents, hoogahs were present for the entire Lost Epoch.
Basilisks: sometimes called Serpent Royalty, basilisks are a diverse and powerful clade of serpents. While they are more well known for their intense hypnotic eyes, which can induce painful and often fatal seizures in their victims, basilisks also sport a notoriously potent venom. Their defining physical features include the horns atop their head (usually between three and five arranged in a crown-like formation) and the frills at the base of their necks. Like dragons, basilisks are split into clades based on the number of their limbs: creeping (4 legged) basilisks, galloping (6 legged) basilisks, crawling (2 legged) basilisks, and slithering (legless) basilisks. They also vary quite a bit in size: the smallest known basilisk is merely three feet long, while the largest breeds are dozens of feet long and can strangle elephants. Regardless of size and shape, all basilisks are deadly creatures that should not be taken lightly.
Amphisbaenas: famous sufferers of Geryon syndrome, Amphisbaenas are born as twins conjoined at the hip. The earliest amphisbaenas have six legs: one pair at the front of each torso, and one pair at their shared hip. Their bodies are always elongated and serpentine, and some species have lost some or all of their limbs as well as their short, stumpy tails, resulting in what looks like a serpent with a head at either end of its otherwise featureless body. Amphisbaenas often have neck frills, but have lost the horns of their Ur Serpent ancestor.
Gliding Serpents: sporting a pair of large skin sails and at most two legs (either forelimbs or hindlimbs), gliding serpents are a collection of oddities. Some even consider this a wastebucket clade, where all the serpents who don’t fit neatly into the other, more well established groups are placed. Rarely larger than a greyhound and generally fairly small, gliding serpents nonetheless inhabit a wide variety of niches and sport many strange powers and adaptations.
Horned Serpents: by far the closest to true snakes, horned serpents are nonetheless their own clade. Their main distinction from modern snakes lies in their skulls, which are far more solidly built thanks to the horns they sport on their heads (hence their name). Bizarrely, many species in this clade have articulate horns, which aren’t fully rooted in the skull but rather connected by a series of small but powerful muscles. While uncommon in Midgaheim, horned serpents are found on other continents, where they often flourished in the absence of their more eccentric kin.
True Snakes: once again, for clarity, this bestiary shall note that true snakes, both modern and arcane, are considered part of the Serpent clade. More than a few magical snakes will be listed in this bestiary, and their close kinship with the more fantastical creatures listed here must be remembered.
Taxonomic Issues: The exact organization of the serpent family tree is a matter of some debate. The fossil record shows that Dragons, Hoogahs, Basilisks, and True Snakes all predate the Lost Epoch. It is also fairly certain that Amphisbaenas did not evolve until after the Lost Epoch began, as their defining traits are a result of the magical disorder known as Geryon Syndrome. Gliding serpents have yet to be found in the fossil record, while a few fossils that might belong to Horned serpents have been discovered, though these are inconclusive at best. While it is agreed upon that Dragons and Hoogahs are closer to the serpents’ monitor lizard ancestors than the other clades, and likewise that Basilisks are extremely close to True Snakes, the exact placement of the remaining three clades is not quite as certain.
Horned serpents, for example, seem remarkably close to True Snakes, and a popular theory posits they are the missing link between Basilisks and True Snakes. However, the absence of clear evidence of their existence in the fossil record draws this into question – why do fossils of True Snakes predate any fossils of Horned Serpents? Some posit that Horned Serpents are instead a highly specialized mutation of True Snakes. However, this is difficult to prove too, as Horned Serpent skulls are so much denser and more solidly built than a True Snakes – in fact, they share more in common with how Basilisk and Dragon skulls are formed.
Amphisbaenas cause a similar problem. They have to have evolved during the Lost Epoch, but from what? They seem to be equally distant from all the other clades, implying they might have evolved from a different lineage of the Ur Serpent than the others, but that would require the Ur Serpent’s line to have lasted well beyond the Mesozoic. Throw in the varied collection of misfits in the Gliding Serpent clade and the history gets even more muddled.
This isn’t even covering the question of which split off first, the Hoogah or the Dragon? Both are considered the oldest Serpent Clades, or at least the closest to the Ur Serpent, and yet no one can agree which evolved first. Dragons and Hoogahs have more in common with each other than they do with other Serpents, that much is certain. At the same time, Dragons have more in common with the other serpent clades than Hoogahs do – while a Dragon is closer to a Hoogah than it is to a Basilisk, as Basilisk has more in common with a Dragon that it does with a Hoogah. Further complicating things is the fact that Dragons have more in common with the Ur Serpent than Hoogahs do – they are at once more “primitive” than Hoogahs, and yet closer to the other more snake-like clades at the same time.
Given the devastation the Lost Epoch’s calamitous end wrought on both the Serpent population and the Fossil Record itself, we may never know the answers to these questions. Nevertheless, we can always speculate.
Serpents and the World of Magic: Since they are startlingly common in Midgaheim, serpents are one of the most studied groups of Arcane Creatures. Despite occupying a wide variety of niches, all arcane serpents are attuned to Earth Magic, and all save Hoogahs are also attuned to Fire Magic. The venom of serpents is almost always magically enhanced, and it is a well-known fact that serpents can find precious metals and gems through their magically altered instincts. The destructive abilities of a serpent are feared by many, and their keen insight into the workings of the world has inspired much envy. Perhaps this is why human civilizations come into conflict with them so often: to humans, serpents are considered a terrible threat, and one whose homes are often filled with great rewards should the undesirable owner be disposed of.
Many Chimeras are made using serpents as components, often in imitation of the most famous and powerful of the serpent clades, dragons. While dragons themselves are generally considered too chaotic and willful to control, numerous wizards and sorcerers have used less powerful serpents as components to recreate their power, often with less than satisfactory results. Notable serpent hybrids include cockatrices, questing beasts, and even the beast that gave such hybrids their general name, the original Chimaera itself.
While serpents generally have and antagonistic relationship with civilization, some have been domesticated or civilized. There is also some quiet respect shown by the “savage” species for the civilized world – many serpents will include coins, goblets, armor, and other trinkets of the civilization within their treasure hordes. The conflict between serpents and humanity was not a necessary one, and if there had been a bit more understanding on both sides, it might have been avoided altogether.
Using the word “Serpent” as a catchall term for a bunch of different but related lizard and snake monsters was inspired by actual medieval bestiaries, which made the word even MORE broad than my definition here. Medieval serpents included snakes, dragons, crocodiles, and even invertebrates like worms – it was not a term with a strict definition. Since there are a LOT of snake monsters in European mythologies, Midgaheim needed a term for all the wildly different snake-inspired critters that would inhabit it, and Serpent fit the bill.
While serpents are fairly common in European mythology, they probably weren’t as prominent as they are in this bestiary. That’s a product of my personal taste more than anything else – I love snakes and lizards and other scaly four legged creatures, and as a result find it much easier to put a great deal of thought into making up fantastical versions of them. Regardless of the myths this bestiary draws on, I would always have been drawn to making dozens upon dozens of different snake and lizard monsters. That’s also the reason why I wanted to get their Overview done before all the other ones I need to do – I need this groundwork in place ASAP as I’m going to be dipping into these guys a lot more than most of the other groups. It’s just my nature.
Most of the creatures listed in this entry come from mythology. The sole exception are the Hoogahs, which I invented when I was a little kid as the “good” counterpart to dragons, which seemed to be almost universally evil in every book and movie I could get my hand on as a child. While dragons aren’t evil in Midgaheim, I felt I owed it to my childhood self to include Hoogahs alongside them anyway – Hoogahs were my first experiment in making up biology for a fictional creature after all, and in a way started this very bestiary. Excluding them wouldn’t be proper.
While “Gliding Serpents” might be a made up name for a category, all the creatures contained under that umbrella come from actual folklore and mythology. There will be more explanation for them, as well as the other serpent clades, when we get to their specific overview entry.
Keeping the exact taxonomic arrangement of these different serpent clades vague is one of my attempts at “realism.” Taxonomy is an ever shifting thing, and considering we’re talking about fictional animals that existed in an Epoch that was eventually wiped from the universe’s collective memory, it’d be a little weird if everything about how they related to each other was absolutely set in stone. It’s more fun to have people guessing about it in universe anyway – it preserves the mystery! This won’t be the last time I pull a “we don’t know EXACTLY where these guys fit on the tree of life” in this project, either.