Return to Ulgrotha: Balance

In which I exercise more of the post-mending Ulgroth worldbuilding.


Laira was a simple faerie.

A bit of sunshine, a warm welcome and the sound of rivulet waters echoing across the creek was enough to please her. Many of her kin lost themselves in Court politics, and that was fine. She wasn’t a good argumentator nor ambitious enough to even try. She’d much rather do her duty out in the fields, watching over farmers and their children, keeping an eye out for danger and blessing the Summer harvests.

She yawned, laying lazily on a branch on the outskirts of Kerselin. Underneath her the children of loggers played, occasionally stealing glimpses of their gracious protector but mostly ignoring her. A faerie’s mystique can only last so long when she’s a regular presence.

Her rest was broken by an argument, laughter suddenly replaced by shouting and crying. Wasting no time, she unfurled her wings and fell from the branch, gliding down gently between her charges.

“Now now, what’s going on?” she asked, firmly but gently.

“Zud won’t stop hitting Tov!” a girl said, pointing at a boy at the periphery of their group.

“Snitch!” he responded angrily.

“Alright” Laira said, “Why were you hitting your friend?”

Though she asked as calmly and gently as she could, this seemed to elicit a jittery, nervous reaction from the aggressor. Clenching his fists, he took a deep breath, and rant:

“He always has it easy! They always pamper him, they always tell me to ‘shut up’ when I tell them my father hits me else it’ll ‘upset him’, they always protect him and leave me to fend for myself! That’s not fair!”

Laira was definitely not expecting that. This was far more complicated than their usual spats. She took a deep breath, and looked at Zud’s eyes, black as the stormy sea. Her’s were the color of light passing through the meadows at dusk, so there was almost a continuity in their gaze, that calmed the young boy.

“Zud, I know you’ve suffered and your friends weren’t fair to you, but you shouldn’t take it out on Tov. He hasn’t done anything to you, your parents did, so nurture that anger to them, not him. Else you’re going to add more people who will hurt you, because these kids will probably tell your parents about this.”

Before the boy could respond, she turned to the others:

“And you should not play favourites. True, Zud is a bully, but if he actually confesses about his pain you shouldn’t dismiss it.”

She turned one last time, so as all of the now guilty children looked at her:

“Your parents or village elders probably told you to ‘kiss and make-up’. You don’t have to, because wounds don’t heal with kisses. Do have, however, to try and work things out. Listen to each other, be there for each other. One day you’ll grow up; what then?”

None of the children responded to that, though it was clear they understood what she meant. They guiltily excused themselves back to the town, gradually growing more friendly among themselves as they approached their homes. Zud and Tov were now talking together, though Laira could not hear them. It was for the best as far as she was concerned, it was likely very personal.

She could, however, hear wing beats, and see a shadow cast on her.

“Well well” said another faerie, “Seems you’re more of a diplomat than you claim.”

“What is it that you want now, Fendart?” Laira said, turning to face the other faerie.

He was perched arrogantly on her tree, hawk-like in demeanour and arrogance. He had the face of a man long gone, a servant of the Dark Barony that no longer lived.

“I want you to take your place seriously” he crooned, “Your days of watching children are far beneath your station, especially with war brewing.”

“You talk about me ‘not knowing my place’, yet you seem to want Autumn Willow’s role…”

“Funny you should mention her. She requests your presence, at once.”

The sheer smugness on Fendart’s face broke Laira’s relaxed demeanour, and it took a lot of self-restraint to prevent her from decapitating the other faerie with a punch. Instead she opened her wings, reaching to the air.

Fendart followed her, two shadows moving fast across the canopy.


The Court gathered at a large clearing, cut through by a wide, fast moving river. Moonlight and meadow flower perfumes filled the air, rendering the intersection of forest, plain and island a surreal, almost dreamy landscape. It was in such places – increasing in number as Ulgrotha healed – that Autumn Willow focused her power, and where her faeries met to discuss their new role as arbiters of the holy balance.

Laira landed on the soft grass and moss of the clearing, sitting down. Fendart, on the other hand, paced himself at the center, wings open and chin high like a rooster.

“We have gathered here at the behest of the Mother of the Wilds, to discuss the impending war.”

The faeries gasped and murmured among themselves. Laira was surprised that they were surprised; maybe this was going to be another of Fendart’s paranoid rants?

“May I, Mother of the Court?”

A breeze crossed the clearing, breaking apart the river waters for but a moment. Autumn Willow had sent her approval for an argument, though she hadn’t deigned to materialise herself yet.

“For 50 years Ulgrotha has been healing and for 50 years we maintained the balance while the Floating Isle fell to decadence. We alone maintained the jaws of disaster from striking, and yet now they are gnawing at our foundations. We’ve neglected the Dark Barony for far too long, thinking it to be obsolete, and yet they strike at the edges of the world. They are a disease, and in their squalor they bred another strain to fell us down.”

“Please stop with that and just get to the point” another faerie yawned.

If Fendart had feathers they would be most assuredly ruffled. He had to make do with his butterfly wings instead.

“The point is that one of their werewolves has gone rogue. He now wanders the Koskun and the Isle and even settlements we control, sewing seeds for war. Warbands of mercenaries now gather, aiming to strike at the Barony. Aysen senses this not as help but as danger, and in turn is gathering its armies. No doubt Eron will make his own moves in response, to say nothing of what the Barony will concoct.”

“You are way too paranoid” Laira interjected, “These are mercenaries we’re talking about. For better or for worst they won’t last against Irini, like the other insurrections did.”

“I see you failed to hear the part where I said Aysen is advancing. As usual, your incompetence is astounding.”

A gust of wind knocked Fendart off his feet, making him lose his balance if only for a moment.

“Mother of the Daughters of Autumn, you know me to be true! She has neglected her duties, which could have prevented this situation from escalating. But alas, we must correct her mistake at once.”

“What do you propose?” a voice like spider threads across rustling leaves filled the air.

At once the winds gathered in a tornado, air becoming flesh and hair and piercing yet gentle eyes. Autumn Willow stood above her faeries, feet sinking into the earth as if roots connected her to all of Ulgrotha. Her motherly appearence bellied a great, almost primeval power, that made Laira feel humble and mortified at once. This seemed to have no effect on the arrogant Fendart, however, who simply opened his wings as he continued his argument.

“Either we destroy the Barony, or we cut the loose thread.”

Autumn Willow took a deep breath, a movement of air more subtle yet just as strong as any storm.

“We cannot kill the Barony, for it is what keeps Aysen preoccupied, lest their memory of Serra burn all of the world down. The loose thread we trim, then.”

A movement of her hand, and the Court was dismissed. Fendart, though furious, bowed with proper and sincere respect. At once Autumn Willow dissipated, and the faeries left, all but Laira and Fendart.

“Go fix your mess” Fendart snarled.

“Me? You’re the one who made a fool of himself over that!”

“He’s going to Kerselin” Fendart sneered, “If you are so attached to that town, then do you part. Else you will be another loose thread, that I will gladly cut.”

She stared at his single pitiless eye and eyepatch, both grim in pride and wrath. He would not stop until the Barony was dead, and she was his tool to vent his frustration. She never felt so much hatred for a being.

“Fine, but on my terms” she said, rising to her feet, “Once this is over you will stop with whatever it is that you’re doing. Or else you will die.”

Fendart snorted, and shooed her away.

Return to Ulgrotha: Mana

Remember how old canon had interesting things to say like how mana apparently travels from the base of the skull? Good times.

Also the Ulgrotha guide said the minotaurs were based on Aboriginal Australian cultures so have some Kamilaroi-inspired things.

***

Guway sat at the tavern, patiently watching the drops from his mug slide down.

His mind tended to wander off to weird places when he was bored. As a child he sometimes mixed ingredients within soup coolamons, much to the amusement of the medicine-woman of his tribe and much to the horror of his parents. Still, he earned nothing but concerned hugs. From what he could gather human children – be here in the Koskun’s southernmost tail or in Aysen’s supposed glory – are more severely punished. As with everything lately, he took pride in not being born in the bizarre amalgamations and divergences of human cultures, ever threatning the Anaba way of life.

And yet, he was here because of a human.

He felt him before he could see him. Some would say because, as a minotaur, he could sense vibrations through his hooves or listen ten times better than a human or fae. The least polite of all company would attribute it to the “inherent spirituality” of his people, and either envy or put him on a pedestal he was pretty sure to have never commissioned. He, by contrast, would say it was because his “date” started a fight outside of the tavern, seemingly entering in a brawl over being called something Guway couldn’t be bothered to acknowledge.

Alas, it only took a few moments for him to arrive. He looked battered and bruised, a trickle of blood still running on his cheek, but whatever wound that caused it was already sealed by his flesh-crafting magics.

“I take it you’re Rau?” Guway asked.

The boy nodded. Guway was at this point relatively familiar with how humans aged – similar to minotaurs, if maybe as far as physical maturation was concerned – but even he had some trouble placing him on their age range. 17? 19? Surely along those lines, unless the magic he described in his invitation also stalled aging altogether. Silly humans and their abominatory disregard for the natural law. Not that Guway judged; his own style of magic ensured he lived a longer lifespan than usual for a minotaur.

Still, to call Rau a kid was probably accurate. He already didn’t strike Guway as mature, and his features did feel genuinely youthful, not a warlock’s tasteless thinning to facial skin or the stalling of the nose’s decay. In another context, he might even have found the youth cute, but the hieromancer was vigilant at all times. At least Rau didn’t seem like a threat, seemingly a few restrained shivers away from crying.

“I didn’t hear what those brutes said to you, but-“

“Don’t” Rau incised firmly, “I don’t want your pity. I just want what I called you for.”

“Alright” Guway sighed, “I can teach you what I know, and I will do it on the terms we’ve agreed upon on your letter. Though you don’t have to pay coin for my services.”

A mischiveous look flashed in Rau’s eyes, but he didn’t dare to say it. Guway was tempted to chuckle, but he remained firm, because he had to deliver harsh truths.

“First of all, I have to decline your request to learn Anaba magics, for they are my people’s alone.”

“But you said-“

“However, I will teach you the arts I have learned by trial and error, by engaging Eron’s and Ihsan’s forces and besting them. I rely on them primarily, so surely you can see the benefits they will bring you on whatever quest you are on.”

Rau clearly wanted to protest, but Guway didn’t have to lift one finger to get him to shut up. He resigned to these terms pretty quickly.

“Fine. It better be damn good. Even if I’m not paying you’re still asking a lot.”

“And that’s fair. I will not insist on your services if you find me an awful teacher. At worst, you’ll learn something useful, free of charge.”

“I guess” Rau said, breathing deeply in what seemed an attempt to vent out his frustration.

Guway took a sip. It was pretty awful compared to the gum sap beverages of the Anaba, but alcohol was alcohol.

“So, where are you staying through all of this?” Guway asked.

“I’ll manage” Rau said, seemingly embarassed.

“I would ask you to stay at my place, but I think we can both agree we are not that trusting yet” Guway said, “I can pay for a room in this establishment. It isn’t as luxurious as an Aysen apartment or even anywhere at An-Havva, but I hear they have comfortable beds around here.”

“I don’t want your pity” Rau said venomously.

“Its not pity if I need you to be in peak condition for your training” Guway interjected, though in truth he did feel sad for the kid, “So quit huffing and puffing until you’re strong.”

“I am strong!” Rau said, but just as quickly as that came out it fizzled like a flame on damp air.

“Tell you what” Guway said, shoving aside his beer, “We’ll begin training immediately as soon as I pay this drink. Then you can show me how strong you are.”

“R-right now?”

“Yes… unless you admit you need to rest and tend to your wounds. You know, things even the strongest this world has to offer still need to do, and in which there is no shame.”

Rau grunted.

“They better have heavenly beds the way you’re describing this place…”

***

Training proper began the next morning, as soon as Guway made sure Rau was properly rested and fed. Rau naturally made a hissy fit worthy of the scrappy teen he was, but Guway only found it endearing. There was no doubt that the kid was dark in some way, but he seemed pretty amicable once you pushed the right buttons.

They hiked late in the morning, the sun high in the Koskun peaks. The air was bright but cold, perfect for the teaching conditions Guway hoped for.

“So” Guway began, “Do you know the fundamentals of magic?”

“Obviously” Rau snorted, “Mana comes from the lands. You bond with the lands, and they release mana all over you.”

“Well, that certainly is one way of describing it” Guway said, “You told me you can do flesh magic. Do you control it?”

“I think so” Rau said, a bit uncertain, “I spend most of my time in the swamps and the forests, so using it to heal myself or give any **** a new one comes naturally to me. I don’t really give it much thought.”

“Right” Guway pondered, “Well, for this exercise you won’t need to do much thinking either. In fact, it’s better if you just give in to your emotions.”

Rau seemed to want to ask about that, but he tripped on a stone. Quick as lightning, Guway grabbed his arm and stabilised him, gently putting him back into position.

“Well, it’s off to a great start. I’m pissed.”

“Good. Keep that, nurture that. Let the anger pull from the mountains like fire pulls from wood.”

They were near the peak, so both had a panoramic view of the valleys and gorges, of the snow-capped stone cathedrals and the jagged cliffs. The air was clear but cold, bright fire in the sun passing through biting cold wind. The Koskun surrendered their mana as easily as a phoenix surrenders its plumes, but they were generous when in the right time and place.

“How does it feel?” Guway asked.

“Clear” Rau answerred, in a strange, passionate calm, “It’s so much more clear than the mana of the swamps and forests. And bright. Like there’s stars everywhere, but I’m not catching fire!”

“I know, right?” Guway allowed some levity in his tone, “I sometimes draw from the forests, and they never feel this intense and open to my eyes.”

“Should I do something with it?” Rau asked, “I want to cast a spell, but it feels… well…”

“Good?” Guway asked, “There’s no shame in admiting that, no matter what any preacher may have drilled into your head. Like I said, let it pull, let it flare. Enjoy it, you deserve it.”

And so Rau did, channeling and revelling in this new source. Eventually, it built enough to feel comfortable casting brand new spells that came up to his head: torrents of boiling blood, devils and gremlins sprouting from pieces of his flesh, bone shards projected far and wide. Truth to be told this was nothing like Guway’s hieromantic magic, more an extension of Rau’s own flesh magic, but his teacher didn’t bother to correct him. No, improvising and creating was part of Guway’s process, his own journey similarly using mountain mana to redefine an existing school: namely, to turn hieromancy’s rigidity into something more brutal in combat.

Perhaps that was why Guway was not the least bit disgusted by Rau’s antics. When you punch soldiers with fists made of solidified order itself you get to see plenty of blood and guts as well.

They had a friendly spar. Neither clearly was using his full strength, the minotaur mostly just redirecting attacks and Rau seemingly only using his flesh magic to create stuff to throw at his teacher instead of the more obvious applications he implied earlier, though Guway occasionally felt his blood flowing oddly inside his veins. Before long they worked quite a sweat and sat down, wincing as the Koskun rocks didn’t go gently on their butts.

“That was awesome” Rau said, smiling earnestly for the first time since Guway met him.

“And it’s only the beginning” Guway said, “Race you to the bottom?”

“The bottom?”

Guway pointed down at a plateau, deep in the valleys. He predicted Rau’s grunt, but it was no less amusing.

***

They made it to the plateau as the sun began to disappear behind the mountains. Light cast deep oranges on the meadows and dusty plains, a distant relic of the Dead Zone at first sight but flaring with mana of the plains.

“Now, to draw mana from the plains you do have to be a bit more calm” Guway explained, “Focus on the order inherent to all things and it will gladly flow to you.”

“How do you do it in the midst of battle?” Rau asked, “and can you use it alongside the mana of the mountains? I feel the mana of the forests and swamps is very different but it still flows to me naturally.”

“I suppose its the same for me” Guway shrugged, “I don’t really have to think too much to draw from the plains alongside the mountains. Though they are like night and day they do overlap in ways I’m very comfortable with. Like the calm before a brawl or the addictive fire of righteous anger.”

“You really like fighting, even though you make schoolars look like brats.”

“You mean like you?”

Rau tried to be indignant, but all that accomplished was mutual laughter. They knew each other for a day by that moment, but it already seemed like they ebbed and flowed like the tides.

“Alright, enough stalling” Guway said, “Show me what you got.”

Rau concentrated, and indeed Guway could feel him trying to reach into the plains. Though night was settling in, to the minotaur’s eyes it might as well have been the brightest day, luminous white threads before his eyes. But Rau halted, opening his eyes in shock. Soon, darkness fell once more.

“I d-don’t think I can” Rau stuttered.

“Everything alright?” Guway asked softly.

“I… it feels wrong. Like its judging me.”

Now this was an interesting development. Guway had seen beings vulnerable to the mana of the plains and the holy force it represented, but usually he could feel them burning as their evil perished in the light. Never had he heard someone say it made them feel uncomfortable, let alone ‘judging’ them.

“Judging you?”

“Y-yeah” Rau said, shaking in small hiccups, “Like it’s telling me I’m nothing, that I deserved what happened to me.”

Suddenly he fell on his knees and started crying. All the bravado, all the self-imposed toughness, it dissipated like a vampire before an angel’s blast, but for the first time Guway felt incredibly distraught and disturbed at the metaphors his mind created in his poetic lulls. This was no abomination, no matter his flesh magic.

This was a person, broken once and now again.

Wordlessly, Guway lowered and embraced Rau. He expected some resistance, but the young man did indeed just cry into his chest, taking refuge in his arms, hiding like a ferret in a hole. Guway massaged his back, trying to get him to calm down, trying but failing to mutter comforting words. Thankfully, the silence was enough, and soon Rau’s sobbing died down, and he just felt limp within the minotaur’s embrace.

“I just don’t get it” Rau broke the silence, so softly it might as well had remained a soundless void.

“Uh?”

“It felt so horrible, yet its part of you. And you’re not horrible, w-we’ve only met a day ago but I feel like you’re not going to judge me if I tell you.”

“Do, do you want to talk about it?”

A silence followed. It spread enough for the sun to fully disappear, and for the white crescent to crown the Koskun peaks.

“…yes.”

Return to Ulgrotha: Flesh

The cages rattled, wood hitting wood a sound more unsettling than the lightning roaring in the night sky, the pitiless splashes the carriage’s collective hooves as they punched and marred the bog expanse, the murderous howls echoing through the hills all the way to the snowy peaks of the Koskun. The captives wailed and cried, begging still for Serra and her angels to set them free, a cacaphony almost as blood curling as the rattling.

With each stop, one voice was removed from the choir, and eventually the rattling had no rival.

He, no older than nine, was trying desperately to sleep the nightmares away. His eyes had been shut ever since a vampire slit his mother’s throat and a werewolf tore into his father’s chest, the sound of fading heartbeats so loud that they might as well drown the world, the roar of twin flames that lit his world. But as he was shoved in the cage and went through the night’s strange symphony, only the rattling of the cages stood out. This would be a sound that he would listen until the moment he joined his travel companions, meat reserves for the long journey of this raid band from the former territories of An-Havva to a far southern outpost, established after the Great Restoration.

It took a single night to cross the continent to its southern hemisphere, but with the forcs of the Barony a night could last far longer than normal. It was an agonising process all the same, his heart threatning to explode with each stop, with each pleading or resigned breath. A thousand years could have gone by for all he could tell, and he remembered every single second.

One stop would be the final one. There were no more voices to silence, the rattling was all there was, lasting beyond the roar of lightning and the pitiless splashes and the murderous howls. It took while for it to settle, but just as it did the wood creaked with additional weight and the smell of rot and wet dog filled the carriage. His cage was torn asunder and his eyes were shut as much as the eyelids could muster, trying to deafen the world with his own sobs. But a hand grabbed him by the neck and threw him outside, into the mud. It cushioned his fall and even offered some shelter, but it was humiliating, especially as sneers and laughter filled the otherwise empty air.

“You want this one?” the vampire asked, “Surely you would have stronger ones if you had some self-control. I even starved for your stupid sake, I drun only three drops!”

“Dramatic as always” the werewolf sneered, “Coachman, the steeds if you will.”

The man whimpered, but walked to the reins all the same. And a scene that lived on since the days of the Baron unravelled: the horses wasted no time biting as hard as they could into the bony legs and chest, grinding bone and flesh alike as they gorged themselves greedily. The man didn’t even bother to scream, his voice was raspy like a broken rake.

“There, now you have blood” the werewolf said smugly.

“Amusing” the vampire deadpanned, “But again, why this one? She choses the most dignified to be her ilk, you seem to go after malnourished runts.”

“A leaf can only come from a bud, and a bud can be molded into whatever you like, grown into whatever you need. You vampires deal with death, we werewolves deal with life. It is only natural you don’t understand my ways just as I have little interest in yours.”

“And yet your philosophy still fascinates me at times. If you weren’t stubborn we could actually have a conversation, but you’re dead set on pretending we can’t relate.”

“Buy me a few rounds and we can relate, all night long…”

The vampire chuckled, seemingly embarassed.

“I think you have work to do. I sure as hell wouldn’t like to delay her new pet.”

“Indeed, let’s not.”

All pleasantries ended, the werewolf grabbed him by the nape. His eyes were shut until the eyelids hurt and the orbs themselves felt squished, but the smell and sound of the licked lips painted the face perfectly before it was seen.

A horrible watery sound ressonated through his ears, and a claw then grazed his eyelids. Though they were peeled right from his face, he couldn’t scream as the light of the moon made the werewolf now truly seen.

With a monstruous lunge, the beast’s jaws enveloped the face. Teeth sunk, then melded with the bloody wounds. Flesh poured in and flowed out, boy and beast now one, a horrifying kiss blending two faces in one. Smooth skin intersected with coarse bristles, eyes flowed in two pairs of amber, one rimmed with white and another with canine black. Skulls broke and reformed within the veil, no thoughts but the wild urges of the Garden forming a green hurricane of predation and hunger.

A final couple of sickening bone cracks, and his humanity ended that night. Flesh flowed forth to each rightful owner, eyelids and other wounds restored as though the flesh was new. A trickle of saliva run down the werewolf’s black tongue, matched by a torrent of vomit by the other participant.

“Bravo” the vampire clapped, “Make him squirm before we parade him.”

“Sit, dog” the werewolf snarled.

And he sat, his flesh a slave to the words of the werewolf. His eyes didn’t close for the rest of that night.


“Here he stands, my Lady.”

The throne room – a makeshift parody of a corruption – was bleak. It rotted of moss and mold and decaying wood, it looked more like a flooded cavern than anything architectural. Eyes betrayed an unnatural court, of all things wrong that accumulated across the centuries the plane rebuilt itself.

Yet, to him, there was only her.

“What fun, what fun!” she cackled madly, “I can tell he’ll be the one! Oh, break for me until we’re done!”

She wasted no time commanding his flesh. His form was never permanently human or lupine, always a grotesque amalgam in between. His teeth and claws at first gnawed himself, sometimes devouring his quickly regenerating flesh and marrow. This quickly extended to other people; captured humans, fae or even angels and minotaurs, it didn’t matter. He would eat them no matter how much his soul reviled that, and that was if he was lucky. Sometimes, he melded with them, sharing their agony with no way of reaping comfort; sometimes he melded with other slaves of Irini, and sometimes with her free servants instead.

The first few days were a nonstop cavalcade of horrors and sensations that ranged from the hellish to the corrupted heavenly, heart flaring when it had the shape to do so. But eventually, even the most chaotic ride becomes a routine, and in routine there is stagnation. Stagnation leads to resignation, and resignation leads to despair.

And it was a great enough despair that fred him.

Return to Ulgrotha: anouncement

I’ve been thinking about a hypothetical return to my favourite MTG set, and I think I’m going to commit to it.

I’ll write a story that WOTC has confidently stated they will never write.

I hope to eventually convert this into a visual novel, I already have an artist potentially interested in doing the sprites. But I’m nothing if not impatient, and I want a trial run, so while I accumulate resources this will be my first take.

The Homelands await.

Musings on docodonts, monotremes and others

Borealestes  serendipitus by Panciroli et al 2021.

I always think about Mesozoic synapsids. If you don’t then fuck off to a Spinosaurus video or something. Anyways, three things in particular have been in my mind for a while:

  • Apparently the traditional layout of mammalian evolution is out of whack. The highly specialised cranial anatomies of monotremes and allotheres apparently make their placement extremely hard, and as such relations among the various groups are rendered tenuous.
  • Apparently “australosphenidans” have only three molars while the most basal monotreme, Teinolophos has five. Due to Dollo’s Law this makes it unlikely that monotremes are descendents from ‘australosphenidans’, though numbats may offer an example of more teeth being acquired being a possibility. Also, the authors of this paper ignored more recent papers that Kollikodon is actually a haramiyidan, so…
  • Docodonts don’t show up beofre the Jurassic. While a ghost lineage is plausible, it is also likely that they are part of the Jurassic mammal radiation that included therians, monotremes, multituberculates, eutriconodonts among others. Do keep in mind that genetic studies overtly favor a split of crown Mammalian (monotremes and therians) in the Early Jurassic…

So A) the traditional mammalian cladogram is out of whack, B) monotremes may not be australosphenidans, C) docodonts could be crown-mammals.

You know what? I’m willing to wager that docodonts are stem-monotremes, particularly Shuotheriids (traditionally, but not always, considered related to monotremes) may actually be docodonts. Most have high molar numbers (up to six in some taxa) and they share losts of post-cranial anatomy and petrosal morphology.

With the possible exception of Gondtherium, all docodonts are northern hesmiphere animals. However, the fossil reccord of the southern continents during the Mesozoic remains patchy, seemingly including derived members of usually considered northern clades such as Corriebaatar, so southern docodonts may wait discovery. Likewise the “australosphenidans” have frequently been interpreted as stem-therians or even eutherians, and the Saint Bathans mammal seems to be closer to therians than to monotremes (albeit no recent studies have been done on it for a while), so this would be quite ironic.

Docodonts have what is called “pseudo-tribosphenic” teeth, similar enough to the tribosphenic teeth of crown mammals aside from a few cusp and talonid arrangements. Tribosphenic teeth could have evolved independently among mammals, but them being a synapomorphy of crown mammals would be pretty neat, especially given all the whacky alternatives like what allotheres came up with.

Part of me wants a monotreme + allothere clade, especially since both groups have deep history in the southern continents. But I think docodonts being stem platypi is the more realistic scenario, for now at least.

List of reasons why multituberculates were not competitively excluded by rodents

List of multie skulls by Adams et al 2019.

You might have figured something is happening, something evil. So allow me to distract you with this article not at all related to that.

Why multituberculates were not replaced by rodents:

  • The last unambiguous multies, ptilodontoideans like Ectypodus, were generalists (Ostrander 1984). This goes against principles of competitive exclusion in which only specialised forms remain. Compare for example monotremes and marsupials, the highly specialised former possibly outcompeted by the latter, but even this has been called into question (Phillips 2009).
  • Multituberculates disappear in many areas before rodents arrived. For exaple kogaionids diversified in the Cretaceous and Paleocene of Balkanatolia, but there is an interval of 18 million years before kogaionids disappearing in the PETM and the first apparence of rodents in Balkanatolia; this vaccuum of both groups in fact allowed the evolution of local mammals like pleuraspidotheriids and polydolopiforms (Métais 2018). Corriebaatar suggests an Early Cretaceous Australian presence, yet the few Cenomanian and Cenozoic Australian fossil sites show no evidence of multituberculates, providing an interval of over 100 million years between the presence of multituberculates and rodents in Australia. The fossil reccord of Africa and Indo-Madagascar is notoriously poor, but again large intervals are observed between the last multituberculate presence (Krause 2017) and the mid-Cenozoic arrivals of rodents to these landmasses.
  • Most damningly Brocklehurst 2021 has shown that multituberculates actually constrained placental dievrsity in the northern continents, with placentals only diversifying after multies declined. This paints the precise polar opposite of the rodent competition hypothesis: multituberculates were so efficient at competing with placental mammals that they kept rodents in place until they died out.

References (that aren’t already linked)

Ostrander, Gregg (1 January 1984). “The Early Oligocene (Chadronian) Raben Ranch Local Fauna, Northwest Nebraska: Multituberculata; with Comments on the Extinction of the Allotheria”. Transactions of the Nebraska Academy of Sciences and Affiliated Societies.

Phillips, MJ; Bennett, TH; Lee, MS (October 2009). “Molecules, morphology, and ecology indicate a recent, amphibious ancestry for echidnas”. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 106 (40): 17089–94. Bibcode:2009PNAS..10617089P. doi:10.1073/pnas.0904649106. PMC 2761324. PMID 19805098.

Métais, Grégoire; Coster, Pauline M.; Kappelman, John R.; Licht, Alexis; Ocakoğlu, Faruk; Taylor, Michael H.; Beard, K. Christopher (2018-11-14). “Eocene metatherians from Anatolia illuminate the assembly of an island fauna during Deep Time”. PLoS One. 13 (11): e0206181. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0206181. ISSN 1932-6203. PMC 6235269. PMID 30427946.

Krause, David W.; Hoffmann, Simone; Werning, Sarah (December 2017). “First postcranial remains of Multituberculata (Allotheria, Mammalia) from Gondwana”. Cretaceous Research. 80: 91–100. doi:10.1016/j.cretres.2017.08.009.

Echo Fanfic: At the lake’s edge

A bird girl’s story at Echo’s edge, centuries before the mines were opened. (Note’s: Jenna ending allusion that most of Echo was underwater. Also MC’s name is Zapotec because indigenous peoples in the southwest traded with Mesoamericans)

***

Xena stared at the water, black with orange tinges as the sun set.

She wasn’t supposed to be here. It was an awful place, covered by water as to contain the evil within. The mountains looked like jagged spines and claws, as it tearing at the sky and the dying sun, as if some remnant of the ancient water monsters slain by Pitao Cocijo still remained.

But then again, she wasn’t supposed to be in her tribe, either. Her people were maize farmers to the south, and while her new life as a nomad had its freedoms, it just wasn’t home. Her new people were warm like their hearths, but still it wasn’t the same. They even taught her their secrets, their traditions guarded against enemies, and she was grateful for that trust, a trust she’d never break.

But it still wasn’t home.

She sat down by the rocks. She watched the oranges die, becoming red. Only, it wasn’t just due to the sun setting. The waters began to turn into a red tide, thicker and thicker as if blood as if mother’s blood was all there was. A sound like an insect’s wings began to buzz in the air, except it threatened to scrape her eardrums. She shook her head violently, and using her feathered hands she grabbed two turquoises and slid them together, making a small fire on a pile of sticks. The light seemed so small and vulnerable before the black and red waters, but it made the sound stop.

Yes, she shouldn’t have gone there. The waters barely contained what was beneath them. It was time to leave.

No sooner did she turn away from the lake that she saw it again. And no matter where she walked, she didn’t go anywhere else.

Panic flowed through her veins, as a strange ripple cross the lake’s surface. She made a grave mistake, and she was going to die there.

Xena stared into the waters, that almost seemed the color of obsidian at this point. She thought of a huge black pupil, glossy and pitch black. Was the lake an eye?

If so, maybe it could be appeased. The Meseta were no strangers to rituals, but perhaps it took her people’s finesse to tame this thing.

She took a maguey thorn from her bag and cut her tongue with it, letting the blood flow through the thorn down into the earth, down into the water.

Nothing happened. She took it as a good sign, maybe she’d be fine afte- oh.

Out of nowhere, a red figure appeared before her. It looked like a red skeleton from depictions of Pitao Bezelao, but whereas the god was a promise of abundance from new growth, this thing seemed decayed beyond repair, part of itself fading like smoke. Its face was blank, just two voids were eyes should be and what could be charitably be called a mouth, but in truth a strange slit that made Xena’s feathers stiff. It stared at her, emotionless, neither cruel nor kind, but evil all the same.

Xena stiffened. Tears run down her eyes, both from fear as well as the fact that she did not know what would happen if she blinked. Eventually, she did, and the moment her eyes opened again it glided towards her, striking her with a menacing claw across her chest. Blood and feathers splattered, but the cut was survivable, if Xena’s legs unfroze. She was a rhea, she was supposed to run as fast as she could, but all she could do was tumble about. Her ankle made the most disgusting cracking noise, and she had no way out.

Eventually, she saw only one way out. Using her wing/arms, she propelled herself from the shore, jumping into the black waters.

She expected the monster to follow her down there, but it disappeared. She was light enough to surface for breath, but the moment her lungs filled she fell down. It wasn’t as though she was being pulled; rather, it seemed as though she was now a rock, heavy. She watched wordlessly as dark waters passed her by, clouds of bile and blood and waste floating like she was in a strange sky. Fish swam, one moment salmon and another twisted beyong comprehension. A witch’s laughter filled her ears, as loud as if it was on air rather than water.

She eventually reached the bottom. Was she going to die here, staring at the evils swimming above her, at fish tearing at each other to form monsters made of raw scum?

Above her the lake was pierced by starlight, surprisingly given how deep she was. Pressure began to pile, as if she was going to be crushed by the water.

You deserve this

It seemed like an intrusive thought, but there was a clawing malice, tearing at her heart, tearing at her mind.

You have no home. You are ungrateful, pitiful. And they know it. They will leave you do die here.

Yes, it was the evil talking to her. And it spoke true.

But Xena could do with a few lies. So she told herself she didn’t deserve any of that shit, and began to paddle upwards. Her legs even worked, propelling her faster, but she winced as her bones ached. Some divers in her village called it “the bends”, and they could be fatal if she swam too fast. But she was running out of air, so it was a risk she was willing to take.

With a final painful stroke, she surfaced, taking the deepest breath her lungs could afford.

She was dizzy and her vision blurred. But she could swear she saw plumes of fire and heard some one diving and swimming.

“No, please…”

***

Xena woke up in a Meseta house. The medicine woman’s, to be exact. She was working on her cauldron, preparing a soup. The sweet smell of frogs and acorns filled the air, with a hint of pepper.

“You were quite foolish” she said, her pronghorn antlers hitting a charm as her head nodded.

“What if I am?”

“Then there’s not much we can do to help. But I’ll try anyway. Why?”

“I don’t belong here. I don’t belong anywhere. I wasn’t thinking, maybe I hoped the lake would kill me. But I was too afraid to die, I guess.”

“Good. You think you don’t belong, but most of the tribe disagrees. The children love your stories, and their parents trust you. Askuwheteau was worried sick, he even thinks its his fault.”

“Gods, no, he, he doesn’t deserve what I did.”

“He doesn’t. And Bisahalani will tear you a new one, before hugging you with tears in his eyes.”

And yet, despiste all the guilt, Xena felt empty on the inside.

“Child, you may never feel at home, and in that regard I cannot help you. However, please at least talk to your friends. They deserve better than to lose you and blame themselves for it.”

Xena said nothing. She carefully got up and left the medicine woman’s tent. As she did a pair of lynx arms hugged her like crab claws.

“Please don’t do that EVER again!” Askuwheteau, sobbing as tears drenched Xena’s feathers and clothes.

“Break his heart one more time and your legs are next” Bisahalani said, his eyes reddened after crying for hours.

“I’m sorry, I really am. You don’t deserve someone like me.”

“Xena, we love you” Bisahalani said, “Now can you please tell us what the flying fuck were you thinking?”

Xena sighed, and told everything.

Notes for an Enantiornithes spec project

Due to the extremely erratic and unpredictable Enantiornithes phylogeny a full project probably ain’t gonna be possible in the immediate future. Still, here’s some ideas I decided to go with:

– Basic layout similar to that of The Speculative Dinosaur Project, with Avisauridae, a clade analogous to the Enabaptiformes (descending from Lectavis), a clade analogous to the Gondwanaviformes (descending from Elsornis), a clade analogous to the Twitiaviformes (descending from Yuornis) and a clade analogous to the Allospiziformes (descending from Gobipteryx). These five clades seem stable enough and the candidates seem to be perfectly fit to survive in an alternate KT event, since most are generalistic.

– Elsornithiformes, already semi-flightless from the get-go, produce the first wave of megafaunal dinosaurs, like ratites except with teeth. Most tend towards more herbivorous niches, developing cusped teeth like those of polyglyphanodontian lizards and early pterosaurs and actually chewing food! Juveniles may still be volant, so they are capable of colonising island systems; others neotenically retain the ability to fly and occupy niches ackin to those of hoatzins on the trees and geese on the ground. Some carnivorous taxa may evolve, both flightless and neotenically volant, but only find success as cursorial predators.

– Gobipterygids mostly diversify as seed eaters, using their robust beaks much in the same way as parrots and finches. Some become terrestrial and fowl-like, with some possibly even going on to occupy duck and seagull like niches. Others become large terrestrial herbivores, the Gastornithiformes to the Elsornithiformes’ ratites. A few become woopecker-like, and others specialise on hardshelled crustaceans. As with Elsornithiformes, flight may be lost and acquired multiple times thanks to neotenic fuckery.

– Yuornithiformes remain much as their Spec analogues, largely insectivores and nectivores with the occasional raven-like omnivore or toucan-like frugivore. In a deviation, however, several become probing shorebird/ibis-like species thanks to cranial kinesis, something no other opposite bird has. These latter may in turn become tinamou-like terrestrial animals and give rise to yet more ratite-wannabees.

– Lectaviformes nonetheless remain the dominant aquatic birds, ranging from plove-like waders to flamingo-like filter feeders to grebe-like divers to forms analgous to pelicans, albatrosses, gannets and even penguins. Some also produce stork and crane-like forms flying inland.

– Avisaurids mostly remain as predatory birds, mostly aerial raptors with the odd form with flightless adults like enantiornithean Deinonychus. Diversify both as owl analogues as well as pelagic seabird analogues stemming from fishing-eagle-like forms. Some inversely become frugivorous and oilbird-like.

Compendium of Enantiornithean Late Cretaceous Jaws

Adamantina Formation enantiornithean jaw from Wu et al 2021.

I still remember the Mirarce paper and its authors’ decisions to depict the eponymous bird with a toothless beak. This decision was based on an assumption that, by the Late Cretaceous, most Enantiornithes had lost their teeth, concurrent with increased speciations towards powered flight and large sizes.

Yet, in recent years it has become increasingly clear that there was no “end goal” for the evolution of toothlessness in birds, with many taxa remaining toothed until the very end of the Mesozoic. Thus, no specific reason for the opposite birds to have lost their teeth.

Still, fact of the matter is that very few cranial remains identified as Enantiornithes date to the Late Cretaceous. While most sepcimens are predictably fragmentary, a few are almost complete, rendering this a frustrating puzzle. For example. Neuquenornis retains a fairly complete skeleton aside from the jaws, a skull well preserved aside from the front. Classic spiteful gods.

Hence, I’ve decided to make a small compendium of known enantiornithean jaw material from the Late Cretaceous.

Gobipteryx (and Gobipipus)

A menagerie of materials associated with embryonic Gobipteryx and Gobipipus, Chatterjee et al 2013.

For most of history the most well preserved Late Cretaceous enantiornithean material came from Asia. The taxa Gobipteryx occurs in Campanian-aged deposits of the Gobi Desert, and includes a myriad of exquisitely preserved material ranging from adults to embryonic remains. A lot of our understanding of the lifecycle of Enantiornithes in fact comes from these animals, hatchlings being supreprecocial and able to fly nigh immediately after birth.

Another more controversial taxon is Gobipipus, known from much the same deposits. Its known almost exclusively from embryonic specimens and several researchers have argued that it differs substantially from embryos assigned to Gobipteryx, but this debate is on-going.

Both birds lack teeth, instead having a keratinous beak whose upper jaw curves upwards. The bony components of the beak differ drastically from those of modern birds, with the maxilla being well developed and forming a large part of the upper jaw margin instead of being reduced as in modern birds, and it’s still unclear if it was capable of cranial kinesis like modern birds do. The ecology of these animals is also rather unclear; they come from what were in life arid environments, but some have suggested a piscivorous lifestyle for these birds, which would be in line wth some studies finding them closely related to the piscivorous longipterygids and Halimornis (see supplementary material). Maybe some sort of seagull-like ecology, foraging in desert lakes?

Regardless, this painted a picture for Late Cretaceous Enantiornithes, and no doubt inspired the decision of the peeps on the Mirarce paper. Thankfully, other, more recent discoveries seem to be putting this to rest.

Adamantina Enantiornitheans

More material from Wu et al 2021

The Adamantina Formation dates to the Late Cretaceous, somewhere between the Campanian and the Maastrichtian depending on estimates. A partcular quarry, known as “William’s Quarry”, has wielded a massive amount of fairly well preserved enantiornithean fossils. These birds have not yet been described, but they are so complete that a study about their tooth replacement patterns was even possible.

Unlike the Mongolian birds, these ones clearly have teeth. Curiously, their snout shape is rather similar to that of modern raptors, the jaws ending on a hook. However, unlike contemporary birds like Ichthyornis, these hooks end not in a beak, but still host teeth, which is frankly amazing. I’m assuming they probably were hawk or falcon like animals, but given their rather unique snout morphology a more specialised diet like that of snail kites is also a possibility.

These animals clearly prove that toothed opposite-birds endured until the end of the Mesozoic, and considering avisaurids have typically been reconstructed as raptor-like birds I’m assuming Mirarce probably also had teeth.

Yuornis

Yuornis material from Xu et al 2021.

In 2021 a brand new completed enantiornithean was found in Henan, China. Roughly contemporary to the Mongolian birds, the ensuing phylogenetic study actually groups Yuornis with them, but the authors rejected this as bias due to toothlessness and elected to not make it part of Gobipterygidae.

Like gobipterygids Yuornis lacks teeth, but has a substantially different beak morphology, hence why the reluctance to consider it closely related t them. For starters its maxilla is more reduced (albeit much larger than in modern birds) while its premaxilla approaches the modern condition. Its beak is also rather narrow, and does not curve upwards. Combined with strong wings and perching feet, this seems like a Mesozoic analogue for a small corvid like a jay or magpie. No mentions of cranial kinesis are made, but several palatal elements are similar to more derived birds so it might have been able to do so.

If unrelated to gobipterygids, Yuornis represents a second lineage of toothless opposite-birds. This is not unsual as birds as a whole lost teeth multiple times and the same likely applied to Enantiornithes, but its clear by now that this was not the norm for the last enantiornitheans.

Facatakely

From O’Connor et al 2020.

Falcatakely was found just two years ago and shows one of the most derived Mesozoic avian beaks of all time, with a maxive maxila and nasal while the premaxila is tiny, the polar opposite of modern birds. Small peg-like teeth line the end of the jaws, while the rostrum itself is deep and curved, resembling that of a toucan. It would then join hornbills and true toucans in the convergent evolution club.

But there’s a reason I left this for last. Several reseachers are not convinced it is actually an enantiornithe, with a viable alternative by Mickey Mortimer being an omnivoropterygid. Sapeornis like birds are known from Falcatakely‘s Maastrichtian locale in Madagascar, but so are pengornithid enantiornitheans (which coincidentaly match O’Connor et al 2020’s phylogenetic results for this bird). In the end, more evidence will be needed to determine it either way.

Conclusion

Its clear that Late Cretaceous Enantiornithes had a wide variety of lifestyles and ecologies, and with that came a variety of jaw anatomies. Some groups did indeed become toothless, but it is patently clear that many toothed species lived all the way to the end.