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The Ecology of the Giant Sea Horse (unpublished AD&D 2E version)

What follows is one of the very first "Ecology" submissions I made to Dragon back in the day (the AD&D 2nd Edition days, to be exact). It's admittedly a bit dry, with most of the giant sea horse facts showing up as a written journal entry, and it finishes off with a new monster I had created to add to the list of marine riding mounts in the format of the time.

And it was promptly rejected as the giant sea horse was not seen as being a particularly interesting monster.

Johnathan
 

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THE ECOLOGY OF THE GIANT SEA HORSE

Theresa walked along the shore, enjoying the feel of the ocean on her bare feet and picking up the occasional seashell to add to the basket on her arm. She had spent sunny afternoons in like fashion for the better part of the year now, one of the advantages of living in a fishing village on the coast. But she always started her walks at the edge of the village and headed directly away from it, disliking the fish stench that was part and parcel of the life of a fisherman's daughter.

Today, though, her walk ended abruptly by the sounds of a struggle up ahead, past a jagged rock that jutted out into the ocean. Curious, Theresa cautiously waded into the ocean and stuck her head around the rock face. What she saw shocked her momentarily to rigid immobility.

Near the beach, a man knee-deep in water wrestled with a shark as big, if not bigger, than he was himself. His clothing was torn and stained dark with blood and he looked like death itself, yet he lurched, step by step, closer to the sand, dragging the gnashing and writhing shark with him. At long last, ankles only occasionally splashed by the waves, he spun to the side, thrusting the great fish away from him as he collapsed to the sand.

Theresa dropped her basket and ran to his side. He appeared to be breathing, a good sign, to be sure. Her attention was diverted by the shark which thrashed at the man's left. It was suffocating in the air and no doubt in its death-throes; still, it was too close to the man for her comfort. She rolled the man over onto his back and dragged him further up the shore, well past the reach of the beached shark.

It was then she got a good look at the man's condition. His shirt was torn open and several deep sword cuts crisscrossed his side. There was a gash on the side of his bald head, just above his left ear, which was pointed like an elf's. But worst of all was his leg: it looked like the shark had taken a chunk or two out of it. The fact he had managed to wrestle the shark to land in such a condition seemed nothing short of miraculous to the girl.

Still, he was not safe just yet. He would need a healer, and soon, if he was to survive his wounds. Theresa knew that there was no way for her to carry the man back to the village by herself; it had taken all of her strength just to pull him up onto the beach. She would have to go and get help.

Holding his scarred head in her hands, she told him, "I'm going to fetch help. I'll be right back." She didn't receive a response, but neither did she really expect one. Turning, she ran back into the ocean, skirted the out-thrusting rock and raced back to the village. Unnoticed, her basket of shells was caught by a wave and drifted off to sea.
 

The man awoke in a comfortable but unfamiliar room. His body had been well cared for: bandages covered his torso and leg and the sharp scent of antiseptic reached his nostrils. He hurt, but welcomed the pain; it was, after all, preferable to the death he had been sure was his due.

Sitting up, and grimacing at the pain it caused his side to do so, the man got a good look at his surroundings. The room was bright and airy with a view overlooking the sea. Besides the bed on which he lay, the room boasted a set of bookcases and a desk and chair; upon the desk were writing utensils: pots of ink, freshly-cut quills, and a generousstack of clean, crisp parchment. An open book on the desk looked to be in the early stages of completion, perhaps a notebook or journal.

The door to the room opened and an elderly gentleman entered, carrying a tray of food. "Good day, my friend" he said. "I was hoping you might be awake, and thought you might like some nourishment." He set the tray down on the desk and helped the wounded man to sit up in bed, then assisted him with the bowl of fish broth he had brought on the tray.

As the wounded man sipped down the broth, the older man introduced himself. "My name is Jonas; I'm a sage of some small renown about these parts. You were found on the beach by a girl from the village, much the worse for wear, I'm afraid. The healer did what he could, and suggested you remain still for a few days. I had some extra room at my place and so had him bring you here."

"I'm grateful. My name is Cal."

"Pleased to meet you, Cal. How's the leg feel?"

Cal grimaced. "It's been better. It'll be fine, in time."

"Let us hope so. Still, I've taken the liberty of sending a man to the city to fetch a friend of mine. A priestess, well-versed in the healing arts. I'm sure she can get your leg back as good as new in no time, once she gets here. That won't be 'til tomorrow, though, I fear."

"That wasn't necessary. I'm afraid I can't pay--"

"Pish tosh, don't worry about that. She's a good friend. But still, if it's payment for simple human kindness that's worrying you, rest assured, there is a way you can pay me back in full, and then some, and it won't cost you a copper."

"Go on."

"My specialty is the sea and all of its creatures. You'll be spending at least the next day here, with an old man who rarely gets company these days. I'd be more than happy to take payment in stories of the sea creatures you've encountered in your life."

"What makes you think I have a stock of such stories?"

"Well, Cal, unless I miss my guess, you've got some elf blood in you."

Cal laughed. "What gave me away, the ears?"

"Sea elf blood."

"How--?" Startled, Cal ran a hand up to his head and felt the stubble growing there. "Of course, the green hair. How long have I been out?"

"Two days."

Cal leaned back in the bed and breathed out a big sigh. "Well, I guess the secret's out then, huh, Jonas?"

"Only out as far as me. And that's as far as it need go, let me assure you. I've always been fascinated with the intelligent marine races, but your culture remains one of the more distant. Mind you, I'm making no judgment; I'm just an inquisitive old man, eager to learn more whenever the opportunity presents itself."

"Yeah. Well, I appreciate the help, really I do, but I really don't think I ought to be spilling the secrets of the sea elves to just anyone, no matter how nice as they might be."

"I quite understand."

Even though the older man was careful to keep a mask of joviality on his face, Cal could tell he was disappointed. "Tell you what, though," he said. "There's plenty of other fish in the sea. If you want, I can jot down a few lines in your notebook for you. Give you a fresh perspective on some of the creatures you probably don't get to see too often."

"That would be wonderful, if you feel up to it! Have you finished with the broth?"

"Yes, thanks." Jonas cleared up the bowl and said, "Perhaps it's best if you rest now. You don't want to try and do too much too soon. I'll check in on you in awhile." And with that, he left the room, closing the door behind him.

Cal closed his eyes and thought about what Jonas had said. It surely would do no harm to indulge the old man's request. After all, he owed the elderly sage a lot, and if all he wanted was a few "inside facts" on a sea creature or two, where was the harm? Jonas would treasure the information, maybe even write a scholarly work on the subject, who could tell?

But where to start? The sea lion? The hippocampus? The dreaded sahuagin, hated enemies of his mother's race? The possible topics were near endless; he had spent over half of his life with the aquatic elves, after all. Mulling over the possibilities, Cal fell into a deep sleep.
 

I've been thinking about what to write about, and I've decided to start with the giant sea horse, as it is a creature I am very familiar with, having captured, raised, and trained them in the past.

Many people don't realize the sea horse is a true fish. They see it as a separate type of marine life, but it is just a fish, nonetheless. The problem is that while most fish hold a horizontal orientation, with the head in front and the tail in back, the sea horse normally swims in a vertical position, with head on top and tail on the bottom.

There are many other ways in which the sea horse differs from normal fish. To begin with, the sea horse's skin is devoid of scales. Instead, it has a hard, bony exoskeleton similar to that of an insect, although, in fact, it has an internal skeleton as well. The exoskeleton is made up of armored plates connected by rings, which cover the fish from its neck to the end of its tail. Other plates overlap along thehead, neck, and back, giving the creature an apparent crest.

For another thing, the sea horse lacks many of the fins normally found on fish. They have neither ventral nor tail fins. They do have a pair of pectoral fins, normally found on a fish's midsection, although a sea horse sports his on the sides of his head. These fins are used mainly for stabilization in the water, as the sea horse uses its dorsalfin on its back as its primary means of locomotion. The dorsal fin can be vibrated rapidly from side to side to propel the sea horse forward or backward, or rippled in a wavelike manner lengthwise in order to propel the sea horse up or down. Sea horses are very maneuverable creatures.[1]

Finally, there is the tail structure itself. The sea horse's tail is long, thin, and very flexible, able to grasp things almost as well as can a hand. In many respects, it is more like an octopus' tentacle than a fish's tail. It can be coiled forward in a spiral, or it can be held out completely straight. Sea horses often use their tails to anchor themselves to a bit of coral, eel grass, or seaweed.

In other aspects, the sea horse is very similar to other fish. It breathes by means of gills located on either side of its head (directly in front of its pectoral fins), although a sea horse's gills are hidden beneath large gill covers.

Coloration ranges from gray to black in most cases, although occasionally red, yellow, or greenish sea horses have been found. The sea horse has a limited camouflage ability, being able to change the lightness or darkness of its exoskeleton. Some can call forth patches of a silvery-gray or red to form a mottled appearance.

Another form of camouflage is the sea horse's cirri, whisker-like appendages that look somewhat like seaweed. These stick out from the head of the fish and help it to blend into patches of seaweed, where the sea horse often spends its time looking for meals.

Sea horses are measured fully stretched out, from the tip of the horse-like snout to the extended tail. Normal sea horses rarely grow longer than about 12 inches. The giant species, however, can reach up to 8-12 feet in length.

Giant sea horses are identical to the standard sea horse in almost all ways but size. Because of their greater size, they are found in much deeper water than are their smaller cousins, and are for the most part unknown to surface dwellers. Their size allows them to be used as riding mounts and many of the intelligent marine species use them in such manner.[2] Due to their maneuverability, they are more often used for scouting missions than for open warfare.

This is not to say that the giant sea horse makes a poor combat mount. In battle, they are able to butt with their heads[3] and, if trained to do so, can use their tails to constrict opponents. Such is the reach of a giant sea horse's tail that it can attack the same opponent it is head-butting or it can engage the one its rider is battling.[4]

Unusually loyal to their riders, these creatures have been known to use their tails to drag their masters to safety if wounded in battle or otherwise knocked from their mounts. I know I myself owe my life to one of my mounts, who managed to pull me out of crossbow range when I was ambushed by a hidden sahuagin scout. The vile creature planted a bolt into my chest before I even knew he was there, and if not for the quick actions of Seafoam, my loyal sea horse war mount, I'd not be here today. He wrapped me in his tail and sped me straight to my family home, where I was tended to. (Incidentally, the sahuagin was hunted down by my tribe and paid for his actions with his worthless life.)


NOTES
1. Sea horses in water are treated as Maneuverability Class A flying creatures in air. They usually swim in an upright position but a sea horse can attain great speeds by stretching its body horizontally, with its tail straightened out directly behind it, and fanning its dorsal fin in a vigorous manner.

2. Among these are the aquatic elves, locathah, and mermen, although the mermen, having no legs, do not "ride" the giant sea horse so much as use it as a beast of burden. Sahuagin do not ride giant sea horses, using them only as a source of food, for which they are highly prized. Tritons as a rule do not use giant sea horses as riding mounts, preferring the larger and more powerful hippocampus, although triton leaders are able to summon giant sea horses with the conch shells they carry for that purpose.

3. The damage done by a head butt depends upon the giant sea horse's hit dice: those with 2 HD do 1-4 hit points of damage; those with 3 HD do 2-5 (1d4+1); with 4 HD, 2-8 (2d4).

4. The constriction attack of a giant sea horse's tail does no damage to its victim but merely holds him immobile, unless the victim makes a successful open doors roll, subject to a -1 penalty. The tail is long enough to completely wrap around any opponent of medium size or smaller, preventing the victim from engaging in either melee fighting or spellcasting.
 

Giant sea horses can be ridden in several different manners. The easiest, of course, is to sit up on its neck, above the dorsal fin, and direct its movement with hand-strokes upon the sides of its head and pressure from your legs. Others prefer saddles and harness, just as if the creature were a land-dwelling horse. This method is often employed with war mounts, so extra weapons may be hooked to the creature's harness. Whichever method is used, it is important not to obstruct the natural movement of the dorsal fin, for it is with this fin that the sea horse derives most of its speed.

However, my comments above about its use in warfare notwithstanding, the giant sea horse is generally a gentle beast and will not engage in battle unless necessary for self-defense or specifically trained to do so. Most giant sea horses used by marine races are used only as beasts of burden, trained to grasp large objects in their tails in order to transport them from place to place. The giant sea horse is an invaluable aid when relocating to a new permanent settlement. Several of them can be used in conjunction to lift objects heavier than themselves.

Contrary to many surface-dwellers' beliefs,[5] the sea horse, giant or otherwise, is not a vegetarian. It eats crustaceans of all types, small fish, and larvae of all kinds. In some instances, they have been known to eat their own young. When feeding, the sea horse opens the trap-door-like flap at the end of its long snout and sucks the food in. When it snaps at its prey, a loud snapping sound can be heard from quite a distance away. This is the smacking of its flap being closed; the sea horse has no teeth. For this reason, its meals must naturally consist of creatures able to fit into its snout. The giant sea horse will also suck up algae and small plants, being omnivorous in nature.

Sea horses tend to be rather passive in their hunting. Rather than go chasing after food, they prefer to remain motionless among the weeds or coral and wait for their meals to swim by. They are very aware of their surroundings, having eyes that can move independently of each other. Each eye can look forward, backward, up, or down, so sea horses very seldom let a potential meal get by them from lack of awareness.[6]

Giant sea horses are hunted by other, larger fish while alive and devoured by crabs and other scavengers when dead. Sahuagin consider giant sea horse flesh to be a particular delicacy. They prefer to catch them in the open, though, and so do not raise giant sea horses as you might raise cattle or sheep.

One sea creature that does not eat the giant sea horse is the sea anemone. For some reason, the sea horse is immune to the paralysis and poison effects of the sea anemone's tentacles and can often be found using one of these creatures as a perch. By anchoring itself with its tail to a giant sea anemone, the sea horse is provided extra protection while it sleeps, for while its eyes are open as it sleeps (like other fish, it has no eyelids), it is generally unaware of its surroundings while slumbering.

Perhaps one of the most unusual aspects of the giant sea horse is its method of reproduction. A male and female ready to breed approach each other and entwine their tails together, performing an elaborate circular dance in the water. This dance can go on for hours, often days. Finally, the female deposits her eggs into a pouch on the male's abdomen, where they are immediately fertilized and buried in layers of tissue. At that point, the female swims away, her job completed, and the male takes care of the eggs from then on. As far as I know, this the only animal species in which the male gets pregnant, not the female.

Once the eggs are implanted, the male seals up his pouch so that no water touches them. The pouch expands during the male's pregnancy (what else can you call it?) as the eggs grow in size, until he is almost twice his normal size. At this point, the male sea horse is at his most vulnerable, for he can hardly carry the weight of his own body around and spends almost all of his time on the ocean's floor.

After about 45 days, the babies are ready to hatch. Much like many bird species, the baby sea horse has an "egg tooth" at the end of its snout to help break open the egg. Aware of the hatching of his offspring, the father sea horse opens his pouch and assists in the birthing process by pressing his pouch against rocks, shells, or coral, forcing the newborns out. Unfortunately for the male, the birth can last for several days.

A typical giant sea horse brood consists of from 150 to 200 babies, each of which is the size of a standard sea horse (in fact, it is difficult, even for one of my mother's race, to tell the difference between a full-grown sea horse and a baby giant sea horse). Once all of the babies vacate the male's pouch, the slit is sealed up and the father swims off. The babies are left to fend for themselves. Not all survive, many falling prey to other marine creatures. They grow quickly, reaching full size after about 5 months, a point perhaps half of them will live to see.

Obviously, it can be a nuisance to have your favored giant sea horse war mount get pregnant and many marine warriors take steps to prevent this. The male sea horse instinctively seals his pouch whenever objects (usually eggs, of course) are placed in it, so sometimes small pebbles are put into a war mount's pouch. He will then seal his pouch and as long as it remains sealed he will not begin any mating dances with females, mistakenly believing he is already pregnant. This has always struck me as a cruel practice and I am not alone in my belief. Many warriors prefer the obvious alternative of having more than one male war mount or sticking with female giant sea horses.

An extremely useful creature, the giant sea horse is of value even after death. Its exoskeleton can be cut and formed into simple armor. Because of the difficulty of shaping the exoskeleton, such armor usually consists of individual pieces strapped on to the arms, legs, and torso. Much more common is the construction of shields from the giant sea horse's armored plates.[7] I've also heard tales of the magical uses of sea horses, but being more of a warrior type I can't verify such talk.[8]


NOTES
5. Including the "Sea Horse, Giant" entry in Monstrous Compendium, Volume 2, which lists the creature as a herbivore.

6. Their visual acuity includes 120-foot infravision and the ability to only be surprised on a roll of "1" on a 10-sided die.

7. Armor made from a giant sea horse exoskeleton provides an armor class of 7 to the wearer. Shields made are the same as any shield, granting a -1 to AC. Note these tend to dry out and become brittle over time when removed from water and so are usually only crafted by intelligent marine species. However, most marine humanoid species disdain the use of armor due to the decrease in maneuverability that goes along with it and so sea horse armor tends to be very rare. Shields, however, are not uncommon.

8. There are many real-world superstitions about sea horses. For one, the ashes of a sea horse, when mixed with oil and vinegar, is said to be a cure for baldness. Pulverized sea horses are supposed to be useful in making love potions (this might stem from the days-long courtship rites that sea horses go through before mating), as well as being able to cure everything from leprosy to the common cold. DMs are encouraged to incorporate any or all of these beliefs into their game worlds; after all, in an AD&D world, perhaps these are more than just superstition.
 

"That should do it," said Narella, completing the spell. "How does it feel?"

Cal stood up at the edge of the bed, favoring his good leg. Slowly, he distributed his weight until he was standing normally. Somewhat surprised, he said, "Fine. It feels fine. Thank you, thank you both."

"Don't mention it. More than glad to help." Jonas held the notebook to his chest like an overprotective mother. It was clear he considered himself to have gotten quite a bargain in the deal. "Must you leave us so soon?"

"Alas, yes, I'd best be off. I was transporting metal goods to--my family--" a quick glance of understanding to Jonas ensured that nothing more need be said "--when my ship was attacked by pirates. In the battle, I was thrown overboard, along with the cutthroat I was fighting. By the time I took care of him I had lost my sword and the waters were becoming heavy with sharks. The ship had been taken over by that time; I thought it best to head for shore as quickly as possible. Now, I'm afraid I've got my work cut out for me if I'm to track them down, and get back what's mine.

"Jonas, thank you again, for everything," finished Cal. But especially your discretion, he thought, rubbing his hand over his newly-shaven pate. "Narella, my thanks as well; I'll be sure to drop a few coins in your Lady's temple, the next time I pass through the city."

"If you're ever in the neighborhood..." began the old sage.

Cal beamed a big smile. "I will. I promise."

"May the Lady be with you," said Narella as the bald man turned from them and walked out the front door of the sage's comfortable dwelling and away, towards the ocean, and his destiny.

- - -​

GIANT SEA UNICORN
CLIMATE/TERRAIN:
Ocean (non-arctic)
FREQUENCY: Rare
ORGANIZATION: Schools (see below)
ACTIVITY CYCLE: Any
DIET: Omnivore
INTELLIGENCE: Low (5-7)
TREASURE: Nil, but see below
ALIGNMENT: Neutral
NO.APPEARING: 1
ARMOR CLASS: 6
MOVEMENT: Sw 21
HIT DICE: 4
THAC0: 17
NO.OF ATTACKS: 1
DAMAGE/ATTACK: 2-8
SPECIAL ATTACKS: Constriction
SPECIAL DEFENSES: Immunity to poison
MAGIC RESISTANCE: Nil
SIZE: L (10'-14' long)
MORALE: Average (10)
XP VALUE: 175

Sea unicorns are a variant of the giant sea horse. They are almost identical to the giant sea horse in appearance with the exception of the narrow horn which juts from its forehead.

Combat: Sea unicorns attack with their horns, doing 2-8 points of damage. This is the equivalent of the giant sea horse's head butt, but the horn, doing piercing damage, often causes the sea unicorn's foe to bleed and this in turn often draws sharks to the scene. Thus, a favored sea unicorn tactic is to wound its enemy and then let the sharks do the rest of its fighting for it while it gets out of the way.

The sea unicorn enjoys a remarkable constitution, which makes it immune to all forms of poison, natural or otherwise. It is larger than the giant sea horse, with a thicker exoskeleton and better armor class, but in all other respects it is equal to a giant sea horse, equally skilled in tail-constriction attacks and general maneuverability.

Habitat/Society: Rather than being a separate species, the sea unicorn is a mutant giant sea horse. In any giant sea horse brood, there is a 5% chance one of the babies will be a sea unicorn. Multiple sea unicorn births are possible but there are no recorded instances of such an occurrence. When found, a sea unicorn will be part of the school of giant sea horses it was born into. Due to their larger size, greater intelligence, and enhanced combat abilities, sea unicorns tend to be the leaders of their schools.

Ecology: Sea unicorns are valued as war mounts by the intelligent marine species that ride giant sea horses, primarily the aquatic elves and locathah. Unfortunately, all sea unicorns are born sterile, a side-effect of the mutation that produces them from giant sea horse stock, so their numbers remain low. Males retain the pouch and even though it is not used in incubating eggs it can be used for storage, as it is never sealed. Many marine warriors with sea unicorn mounts use their aquatic steeds' pouches as a handy place to keep their treasure, particularly small items such as pearls.
 

And there we have another one from the rejection files. I was honestly surprised to find it still on my computer, as I had pretty much forgotten all about this one.

Long after its initial rejection, though, I thought it would be cool to rewrite "The Ecology of the Sea Horse" and submit it along with "The Ecology of the Hippocampus" and have the shared fiction between both articles be a combat between an aquatic elf riding a giant sea horse and a triton riding a hippocampus, with the fiction for each article taking that rider's point of view. I had envisioned each of the articles being on either the top of the page (sea horse) or the bottom (hippocampus), with shared artwork between the two articles. Nothing ever came of that idea, either, as somebody else beat me to writing a published "Ecology of the Hippocampus" in the pages of Dragon.

Johnathan
 

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