The Shna’mina

To the northeastern coast of The Sunset Lands, in the once fertile Kastan’ose Valley, lie the foothills of the Mithualan Mountains. This area, known now as the limping grounds of the endangered Djunna civilization, was once home to vast numbers of Shna’mina, which roughly translates to “flat-headed dog.”

Based on fossil evidence in conjunction with ancient scrolls and myth, the shna’mina were not anything like dogs, but more like large rodents. Short and stocky in nature with shaggy fur and short, fist-like tails, males grew to no more than 3 feet tall at the shoulder while the larger females reached as tall as 4.5′ at the shoulder. Males and females alike sported hard internal skeletons made of unique calcium and carbon structures found only in this phylum of terrestrial herbivorous rodents. Shna’mina were talented digging creatures and often built elaborate, albeit shallow, tunnel-like sleeping chambers which they only used after dusk.

Based on evidence from fossilized dental records and bone composition, it’s evident that the shna’mina diet consisted of everything from roots to young tree bark. Shna’mina were also blessed with a six-chambered stomach which allowed them to break down even the toughest tree bark in the valley while digesting nearly 90% of the nutritional value therein. Because of the highly efficient nature of their gut, shna’mina meat was extremely nourishing and highly coveted for its sweet and nutty flavor. On a good day, it could sell for five times the price of other meats. The milk and ground bones of the beast were also the main ingredients in many major remedies for the Djunna people and were considered the reasons for the Djunna people’s impressive longevity and low infant mortality rate. Shna’mina fur was also held in high regard not because of its warmth, but because of its elasticity and ability to retain heat. Oftentimes, a skilled Djunna contractor could insulate the roof of an entire home out of the hide of a single adult shna’mina female.

Ranging in color from snowy white to slate grey with silver or roan dappling on their stifles and hocks, shna’mina shed their fur coats each spring and grew back completely different patterns the following winter. For this reason, shepherds identified the hierarchy of  herd members through eye color. Seven females and seven males – the alphas – would always have white eyes. Second tier members – or betas – would have grey. Lower tier members, often burdened with dangerous tasks such as luring predators away from exposed young – mature with black eyes. Through this, members of the herd would be assigned rank at maturity and had no hope of moving up during their lifetime except temporarily through fatherhood.

Herd behavior of the shna’mina was considered so complex that the occupation of shna’minehu, or “shepherd” was held in extremely high cultural esteem by the Djunna people. Seen as the best and brightest of the village, shna’minehu were often sought out for advice or guidance by all members of Djunna society since it was believed that those who understood the  shna’mina could surely understand the complexities of other parts of life.

Shna’mina herd mentality, though only recorded by word of mouth from shepherd to shepherd, was believed to have worked in a hierarchical system which often changed daily in order to confuse predators. Though the herd operated with an alpha female and alpha male, it is believed that seven females rotated leadership as shna’menila (“herd mother”) while the alpha males (shna’medjazu, “herd fathers”) remained constant for as months at a time. There are no records of special roles held by the shna’medjazu, but it is clear that the shna’menila were the true herd leaders.

When not leading the herd, the remaining six shna’mina alpha females entered a heat cycle in which they would secrete oils from specialized glandular tissue on their neck, knees, and flanks. This oil, meant to alert the males of her availability, also served as a defensive mechanism. Through some unknown process, the oil attracted a specific male – alpha or other – from the herd to approach her for breeding while warning other males to stay away. Able to will her oil to be poisonous or nourishing, any rejected male would be seriously burned by her oils should they attempt to approach her against her will. If they continue to attempt mating in this way, shna’minehu reported males being castrated by the oils and therefore demoted to the lowest rank in the herd. The correct male, however, absorbed the oil and was rewarded with a 95% fertility success rate upon mating as well as essential biological changes to his body in preparation for the birth of the young. The oils were also known to seriously injure or even kill predators who attacked females during their fertility cycle. Often times, shna’minehu would find the shriveled remains of etholeri, or “sky lions” who failed to kill the alpha female in charge of the herd. If the alpha female in charge was ever killed while on duty, herd dynamics immediately collapsed and members laid down and offered themselves to the predator willingly.

Pregnant shna’mina alpha females enjoyed a relatively short gestation period of 47 days. Shna’mina young – born live and called “hui” (pl. huya) – resembled round, flat-headed otters. Huya were considered sexually mature at the age of 4 moons when their eyes permanently changed into the color of their hierarchical status. The young were nursed and raised by the shna’mina sire. During those 4 moons of the hui’s adolescence, the father’s eyes turned white and he was temporarily treated as an alpha male regardless of  previous herd status. Traditionally, the shna’minehu would bring sweet fruit to sires seven times during the rearing of their hui as a gesture of congratulations and good faith to the new member of the herd. The female had virtually no involvement in the upbringing of the hui.

Adult male shna'mina with hui, aged 17 days.

Adult male shna’mina with hui, aged 17 days.

Shna’minehu lore stated that if a shepherd could gain the trust of all seven alpha females in seven nights on their respective days of leadership, then the herd would reward him or her complete trust even in the face of certain death. It was said that shepherds, once accepted by herd leadership, would enter a wal’ogei or “blood pact” with the same herd for their entire lives, risking life and limb to protect and maintain herd dynamics and balance. Oftentimes, the shna’minehu was even entrusted with choosing the shna’minela whenever he or she saw fit.

The bond also granted the shna’minehu the ability to choose which member of the herd would be offered to the Djunna people as food. A secret process known only to the shna’minehu, there are no known records detailing the actual steps taken to choose, kill, and honor the body of the felled creature. However, myth suggests that it was completed in the highest form of respect and dignity offered to any known herd animal in The Sunset Lands.

This bond, though used in conjunction with the Djunna people to bring peace and prosperity to the valley, was eventually their downfall upon the arrival of the Mith’lani, or “men of stone” in the year 806 AC. Upon the fall of the civilization and the overnight enslavement of their people, the Mith’lani ordered the immediate slaughter of all shna’mina in the valley in order to feed their armies. Shepherds that refused were made an example by the gruesome murder of their families, their herds, and finally, themselves. While many other shna’minehu chose to fling themselves off of cliffs instead of betray the trust of their herds, most remaining shna’minehu complied with the unthinkable. In a sorrowful week known as Kadam Va Wal or loosely, “Bleeding earth,” 41 shna’minehu slaughtered their herds from the shna’menila all the way to the last black-eyed male. By the end of the week, only 6 Lower Tier shna’mina from varied herds remained. Within hours, they were claimed by predators.

The Djunna, though endangered, still live in the valley but have no more shna’mina to nourish them, even if they still were literate in the art of the Shna’minehu. An anemic and often sickly people because of the lack of shna’mina nourishment in their diet, the Djunna face high infant mortality rates due to hypocalcemia (usually prevented by shna’mina milk) and an average life span of 34 years (almost a third of what they enjoyed before the arrival of the Mith’lani).

Fire Flies and Sorrow Eels

Spotted throughout The Hidden Lands are water sources inhabited by two animals involved in a symbiotic relationship, one fire-based, the other water-based. Both feed on a victim’s spirit if they come too close to an inhabited lake or river. Fire-based “insects”  lure victims in by distorting their reflection in the water as an image of their greatest desire – food, lovers, items, whatever – and when the creature reaches into the water for it, they immediately turn into water themselves. Their soul is devoured by the water-based creature therein. It feeds on the sorrowful memories of said victim and entering them into an eternity of reliving them, but discards the positive energy of that particular creature to feed the fire-based “flies.” However, if the “flies” ever actually touch the water, the entire water source and the creature therein will turn to a stunning gold-inlaid blue marble. If obtained, this marble is rumored to be the most precious item on the entire continent and is believed to heal all illness, grow any plant when buried, and even raise the dead or turn back time.

Many explorers and fortune-seekers have met their ends searching for – or attempting to outsmart – these creatures and the water sources they inhabit. One survivor of a exploring group reported that his entire outfit of 37 men and women fell victim to the enchanting images superimposing their reflections in the water and, upon attempt to retrieve them, were engulfed. A few even tried to escape, but according to his report, their stifled cries and desperate reaches for land appeared to be nothing but treacherous waves splashing on the rocky shores. Shortly after relaying the story to a stranger in a pub, the traveler lost his mind in mourning for his lost friends.

Images of the creatures are disputed among eyewitnesses and ancient documents uncovered throughout the land. The fire-based creatures are rumored to travel in swarms and to be very small, flighted, and warm to the touch — a key factor in their ability to lure victims toward the water at night when temperatures plummet below freezing. Some say their wings do not buzz, but hum – softly, and lyrically like a mother’s lullaby and often to a tune that is familiar or even meaningful to the victim. Once at the water’s edge, the victim instinctively looks into the water, expecting to see their own reflection, but actually visualizing the object of their deepest desire.

The water-based creature is even more mysterious since nobody has ever actually seen it. Drawings on scrolls and the walls of ancient mountainous cave settlements suggest that it is a long, eel-like creature with an enormous gaping mouth lined with long, grotesque, needle-like teeth. Because sorrow is never seen, but felt, the monster lacks eyes and instead has seventeen humanoid “arms” projecting from its face and neck, used for grabbing its victims in the water and shoving their weeping souls into its mouth. Legend has it that when victims seem immune to the charms of the firefly-like creatures, the water monster will wave its “arms” above the water to create the illusion that someone is drowning in an attempt to appeal to the heroic side of passersby. Legend also says that the fangs of this creature, when removed from the skull, collapse into ash that burns the skin of someone that has been dishonest, deceitful, or treacherous. Oftentimes, parents of the human race would use this story and wave skinny sticks or animal bones at their children to scare them into telling them the truth when they’ve gotten into mischief.