It so happened that the farm of Yuan Wei Tao grew prosperous in a fertile river valley. This prosperity gave Wei Tao the opportunity to indulge in his passions of basketry, pottery, and calligraphy. He was particularly adept at creating dolls out of reeds, which he would give small clay faces and wrap in a poem. Sold at the market in the nearby city, Wei Tao’s dolls were regarded as good luck charms and made particularly favored gifts for teachers, scholars, and firstborn sons. Despite success with his art, Wei Tao always considered himself a farmer first, and always worked his time in the fields before he would allow himself to indulge his fancies.

Wei Tao had a young wife named Xue Ying, and it was for her that the greatest and most intricate of the farmer’s creations were reserved. Though childless, they shared a great and noble love and could often be seen working the fields together alongside laborers and cousins. Xue Ying’s beauty was renowned throughout the river valley, as was the overwhelming devotion she showed for her husband and neighbors. But one day it came to pass that an ox broke free of its plow and trampled Xue Ying beneath his hooves, killing her instantly.

Distraught, Wei Tao withdrew himself from the world. He concealed Xue Ying’s death, convincing others that she was merely badly injured and under his care. In his despair, Wei Tao crafted the finest doll he had ever created and offered it to the Heavenly Grandfather with a poem begging to be honorably reunited with his beloved. His devotion moved the heavens, and a celestial doll appeared on Wei Tao’s doorstep wrapped in instructions.

Wei Tao created a reed doll in the shape and form of Xue Ying, and filled it with poems of the highest quality describing her life and nature. Then, using a process revealed to him by the Heavenly Grandfather, Wei Tao covered the doll in living clay. This new Xue Ying awoke, was to the eyes of Wei Tao as she had ever been. But the celestial doll had borne a warning: though possessing her form and imbued with her spirit, the new Xue Ying was still but straw and clay.

Wei Tao and Xue Ying lived their lives as they had before, but Wei Tao did not heed the Heavenly Grandfather’s caution and once again worked the fields with his beloved. As she carried heavy burdens, the living clay on Xue Ying’s back gradually thinned until a laborer noticed the bare reeds poking out from beneath her clothing. Thus was the doll’s nature revealed to the valley and also to Xue Ying herself.

“This is boring, Dad. Who cares about girls so much they’d go to war over one?”

I lowered my copy of The Big Book of Greek Mythology, sensing a crack in my plan to give Sean a classical education through the medium of bedtime stories.

“W-well, Helen was really just an excuse for Agamemnon to send an army to Troy,” I said.

“Armies are boring,” Sean sighed with a cynicism unbecoming a 7-year-old. “Uncle Dave’s in the army.”

This wouldn’t do. “Well, the army was just an excuse too,” I said, groping about for something to grab his attention. “They were really just…just androids, to make sure no one suspected.”

Sean perked up a bit. “Suspected what?”

“Suspected that…uh, that Agamemnon, Achilles, and Odysseus had superpowers. Agamemnon had…super-strength. Achilles was invincible. Odysseus could shoot lasers out of his eyes.”

“So they had a bunch of robots around so no one would wonder how they beat up all the bad guys all by themselves,” Sean said. “But how’d the war last 10 years?”

“Uh…the Trojans had robots too,” I said, trying to recall plot bits from Sean’s cartoons. “Lots of ’em. And superpowers. Priam could mind-control. Hector had super-speed. Paris had mutant healing factor.”

“Hmm…” Sean said.

“And Helen was a cyborg,” I said quickly. “The Trojans weren’t just in love with her, they wanted to use her technology to make an invincible army.”

“Wow! What happened next, Dad?”

I turned the page, hoping that what he was about to hear wouldn’t warp his appreciation of the classics too much.

For although the bardic tales are littered with stories of fire-breathing wyrmkin, they but scratch the surface of these creatures’ fascinating natural history–with their long-ago extinction, now all but lost to us moderns.

To be sure, many breathed fire, but they were only a lucky few. Most of the great serpents did lack the specific combination of forebears and kismet to ignite their breath, relying instead on foul stenches, acids, billowing steam clouds, or–the the most part–strong jaws and an agile neck.

Flight was similarly a trait only the most fortunate of the great wyrms posessed, and many lacked the power even with wings. Far more chose to take to rivers and lakes, rocky crags, or mountain passes to buffet on ill-starred passersby.

Consider the case of Smallmaw. He could only expel a blast of air from his mouth, which was too constrained to rend and tear a grown man, and whose stunted wings could not support flight. Yet this wyrmkin rose to be among the most feared in the British Isles before the Roman invasions purely on the strength of the one aspect our legends accurately describe: a deep and cunning intellect.